Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Monday, October 29, 2012

On the Bookshelf—Review of The Casual Vacancy

I just read J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy over the weekend, and I'm raring to review it so no Monday Manifesto today.

It would be easy to spend this post comparing The Casual Vacancy to Harry Potter, but I'll try not to. I'll just say three things:

1. Rowling has, thankfully, cleaned up her adverb use since HP.
2. It's a bit disconcerting at first to hear our beloved author of children's books use certain terms referring to female genitalia.
3. This is in no way the sort of book that includes a wise old man spouting about how love is the greatest magic.

Now we've got that out of the way, on to the review!

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, were being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats' currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.
—from The Casual Vacancy

This is not the sort of book I'm normally drawn to (contemporary fiction, realistic fiction, politics), not the sort I normally pick up off the shelf and say "this sounds intriguing." The dull-as-rocks flap copy doesn't help either: "A big novel about a small town..." But I am so glad I read this book.

The basic plot is this: When Barry Fairbrother dies, different factions vie to put someone in his spot on the council. But this plot is merely a canvas on which to spin out the lives of the characters: failing marriages, abusive fathers, midlife crises, school bullies, heartbreak, addiction, dirty secrets. The young striving to overcome the faults of their parents but with plenty of faults of their own, their parents plodding through life, just trying to hold it together.

The book doesn't have a protagonist or clear antagonist, just a large rotating cast of characters. Every single character is so complex, so well drawn, each a mix of likable, sympathetic, flawed, mean. Howard Mollison is manipulative and uncharitable, but he's jovial and so endearing in his deerstalker cap working at his delicatessen. Sixteen-year-old Fats is intelligent and confident but also very cruel as he searches for a naive sense of authenticity. Krystal Weedon isn't just the vulgar and savage daughter of a heroin addict, she's funny and brave, can lead her rowing team to victory, and loves and cares for her younger brother. Even the dead Barry Fairbrother, who could easily be idealized post-mortem, is not perfect.

And it's all held together with razor wit, sharp insight, and beautiful precise language.

Well done, Rowling, well done.

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