Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: "The Casual Vacancy" by J. K. Rowling

It's hard to explain why I liked this book. For one thing, the only truly sympathetic character in the entire story appears to be the guy whose sudden death  in Chapter 1 opens the casual vacancy on the town council, and kicks off the story. Virtually all of the other characters range from the merely petty to the truly soul-twisted. In many ways, it is an almost scientific study of all the dysfunctional ways people act out their existential angst: self-abuse; substance abuse; emotional and/or physical abuse of others. The context is the ancient British class system's attempt to preserve itself despite the influx of immigrants and the rise of technology that can be used for good or for ill.

Rowling so successfully crawls inside the heads of her characters, I could understand their pain and see the sort of convoluted logic behind their bad behavior.  It was a lot like watching an automobile accident. You know it's going to be awful, but you can't tear your eyes away.

The real reason the book worked for me was Rowling's virtuosity with the English language. The words pile up one on top of another, painting word pictures and/or poking emotional buttons with precision. Long parenthetical insertions provide such juicy backstory that they are too compelling to be annoying (although the writer in me noticed them, and wondered how she slid them past an editor). The characters are so real they pop off the page and come to life, sordid as their lives may be.

There is a sense of hopelessness about the story that made me sad. Misdirected energy. Wasted lives. People who are unnecessarily miserable and unhappy, and who seem to want everyone around them to be miserable and unhappy as well.

It is not surprising that the residents of Rowling's home town are mad at her. She so perfectly nailed small town life, the locals probably know exactly who each character is based on. However, I had the sense in reading the story that Rowling sees the characters like one would see the black sheep in the family: they may be damaged and even despicable, but they're kith and kin, and we love 'em anyway.  Only an author who loves the characters could go deep enough to show the humanity inside each of them, even the worst of them.

This is definitely not beach reading, but it was worth the money. (Which is way more than an e-book should cost!)

Buy it here*.

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