When I was in school I detested writing book reports. I could never grasp the concept of writing about a book without telling the whole story and giving the ending away. The exercise always seemed pointless to me. More times than not I would find the shortest, simplest book and write a double-spaced essay on wide-ruled paper until I met the assigned number of pages.
Later, in college, the term changed from book report to critique. A critique is just a more academic book report but in a critique you have to use words like “man’s struggle against…” and “theme”. I was a little better at critiques because they were my own thoughts on the subject and as long as I wrote well and thoroughly I couldn’t really have a wrong answer.
This brings me to my theme of the day. Last night I finished reading The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first published novel after the final Harry Potter installment. I was so excited to see that she had written another novel that I pre-ordered it months in advance. Unlike the Harry Potter series that I read the moment I brought them home, I held onto this book for a while, giving it time to breathe. Then the negative reviews started flowing in, and I set it deep under stacks of other books. I even resorted to using it as part of a platform I fashioned on the top of the piano on which I built a Christmas vignette, assuring a whole month of not having a chance to pick it up. I didn’t read the reviews because like Harry I wanted to make my own decision about it’s worth and not base my opinion on someone else’s narrow mind.
Now, almost two years since it was published I finally picked it up and took the plunge. It was an icy plunge, and many times I wanted to save myself from drowning and sit by a warm fire and then throw the book in the fire for good measure. I picked it up, I put it down. I picked it up, and put it down. Finally, a little over half-way in I picked it up and didn’t, couldn’t, put it down until the end.
I guess after so many years of pouring her heart into the boy wizard, Rowling needed a change of pace. I can only think that every vulgarism she withheld from Harry and Hogwarts she spewed into this story like a sigh of relief. I look at it as her “Girls Gone Wild” moment. Like a young girl set free in college after fourteen years in a private, Catholic school, she’s twerking on the dance floor.
The underlying struggle in this book was my struggle to find one shred of likeability in any of the characters. This has got to be the first time I’ve read a book and loathed the characters so much I wanted them all to die painful deaths in the end.
My purpose is not to tell the story here, so I will only say it is set in charming, scenic village in England that is bordered on one side by the slums of the nearby, larger city. A parish council seat in the village becomes vacant and there is a rush to fill it before a major funding decision is made. Conflicts arise between the deep–rooted residents of the village and the residents of the slums who depend on the village for their welfare. Whoever wins the empty seat will have a direct effect on the future of those living in the slums. It is rough story wrought with domestic violence, illicit drug use, and promiscuity.
The only character with any likeability or moral fiber dies in the first few pages. The only other character I had any interest in had one short scene in the last eighth of the book. And I only really liked her because she had such disdain for her awful parents. She sweeps into town in a fast, green BMW and just when you wish she would stay awhile she is gone, only to be mentioned once again in passing.
There were three others that I rooted for even though none of them were very endearing. In the end it was these three that put heart into the story even though the heart is covered in mud and slime and takes a tragedy to reveal it.
I never expected this book to be anything like the Harry Potter stories. That is probably the main reason it took me two years to pick it up; I didn’t want to be disappointed. Honestly, I did not know what to expect since I didn’t even read the dust jacket. I’ve made it clear in a previous post how much I admire J.K. Rowling as a writer. Was I disappointed in her change of voice? Absolutely not. Despite the rawness of the story and her despicable characters my respect for J.K. Rowling as a writer has only grown. When it all boils down her characters may not have been endearing but they were strong. Each of them had an inner voice that spoke loudly to the reader. Some shouted and some whispered but they all had a say. Rowling’s talent shows itself through her character study and her way of tying it all together even when the ends are so loose they almost unravel completely. I stand by my previous assessment of her work when I called her a genius.
I judge a book by the way it makes me feel when I finish reading it. If I can pick up another book immediately then it wasn’t very impressive. If the story puts me in a funk where I have to replay it over and over then I was moved. This is one of those that put me in a funk. I think the reason it affected me so much is that despite the foul, unlikeable characters in play I found bits and pieces of myself in each of them, one in particular, and that is a hard realization to digest. The feelings of anger, angst, insecurities, disappointment and desperation that undulate through the story will hit a sore spot on even the most level-headed person who thinks they have it all together.
These characters are real people with real problems and vacant dreams. There is no Felix Felicis to give them good luck.
My advice about this book is to open it with caution. If you are opposed to reading vile language, upsetting situations, and finding a bit of yourself in some really damaged people then do not pick it up. Don’t even look at it. Otherwise, read it with an open mind and you might end up like me, surprisingly sad to see it end.