reviews

Resurrected book review: The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

This one is only from 2012 (and you’ll see how the events of that year, especially the American election, influenced it), but the intensity level is pretty high, since I was discovering the first adult work by my favorite author and it worked for me like gangbusters. It’s kind of like a love letter.

Can’t wait for the BBC adaption! Even if they aren’t making Howard (played by Michael Gambon, aka Dumbledore) fat, which is pretty much his defining trait.

Spoilers through the end!

1.

I’m only through the first three sections of The Casual Vacancy, but reading it feels like coming home.

I really do mean that.  Harry Potter was so formative to my upbringing; I’m one of those who literally grew up with Harry.  I got the first book when I was eleven, and the fifth when I was fifteen.  The last book came out on my nineteenth birthday.   The series, and all it influenced, molded an entire decade of my life.

And now I’m reading something new by her — something very different, without magic and full of profanity and the grittier parts of life — but, if I may be utterly melodramatic about it, the writing style cries out to my soul.  It just makes me so happy.  My favorite line so far:

Andrew ate his Weetabix and burned with hatred.

Yes.  That.  Is everything I remember, everything that influenced me, everything I aspired to in my own writing.

Apart from the style…I thrilled at the start, delighted by how it rung of both Jane Austen and Anna Karenina.  Addressing martial happiness and unhappiness in such simple, straightforward terms is just so classic and literary in the best of ways.

2.

I’m starting to see what she’s actually tackling here, and it’s actually…huge.  It’s about Mitt Romney, this election, the British austerity measures, the global economic collapse and recession, Occupy Wall Street, class warfare, social inequality.  It’s about herself: the single mother on welfare who became a multi-millionaire.

And I’m so impressed by her, all over again.  So many times over.  There’s so much going on here that she never got to touch in Harry Potter.At first, I was loling because it seems like she’s venting all the sexual repression from the HP series — it’s not just that this is a book meant for adults, it’s that it’s chock-full of sexual detail, everywhere.  Part of it’s because there was a lengthy section in the POV of an adolescent boy, but still.  This is my favorite of the ~adult~ material so far:

He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four.  A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.

But it’s not just humorous sexuality.  I just got through a scene in which a social worker visits the home of a heroine addict with a young son and teenage daughter, and…wow.  It wasn’t gratuitous, nothing even R-rated, not even the worst of child abuse, though there was definitely neglect going on, but…I don’t think those images are going to leave me for quite some time.  She made it incredibly real.

And speaking of that teenage daughter — Krystal Weedon.  I can’t even explain the fascination I’m building for her.  She’s nothing like any female character I’ve cheered for before, nothing like anyone Jo’s written before — the closest might be Dudley Dursley, but the circumstances are still wholly different.  This quote:

She knew no fear, like the boys who came to school with tattoos they had inked themselves, with split lips and cigarettes, and stories of clashes with the police, of drug taking and easy sex.

So, yeah.  I am deeply, deeply hooked, and can’t wait to see how the remaining 87% plays out.  So happy it’s not a short book.

3.

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I don’t have an immediate answer, one already set in mind. At times it’s been The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Harry Potter, The Red Tent, The Graveyard Book. I haven’t found a book whose value hasn’t diminished through the stages of life, one that encompasses all my innermost thoughts, the most breathtaking and poignant analyses of life that are most meaningful to me, ringing of everything for which I strive.

I don’t know exactly if The Casual Vacancy is that book either, but I know it’s just jumped to the top of the list.

This book. I’m still in a state of disbelief for how much it struck me to the core, given how wildly dissimilar it is from Harry Potter, and yet Harry Potter was once my answer for the favorite book question, and without a doubt it shaped a decade of my life.

I never expected to love J.K. Rowling’s next book this much. I really didn’t. I didn’t know what to expect — the descriptions were so vague — but I was intrigued, and of course I was going to check it out.

I can’t take in how polar opposite The Casual Vacancy is from Harry Potter in so, so many respects — and yet it touched me just as much as the first Harry Potter books did, but on an adult level.

I can’t say at the moment that The Casual Vacancy has any significant themes or tones in common with Harry Potter, apart from the nation in which both are placed. But somehow I grew up alongside Harry, and J.K. Rowling’s next, utterly distinct novel touched me to the core.

The tone of the first part is almost misleading. But I liked it — the portraits of different characters, so neatly presented and distinguished and connected to one another, and especially, in the initial sections, the studies of varying states of marital happiness or unhappiness.Then, for a while, I thought she was releasing a lot of Adult Material that had been repressed through the Harry Potter series. An almost excessive amount of sexual detail, and variations of “fuck” appear hundreds of times. But it wasn’t gratuitous, I realized. It was an honest portrayal of life, a life to which she had once been very close, long before she became a multi-millionaire. A story she was very intent on telling, with the enormous megaphone now in her possession. And I’m so glad she did.
Krystal Wheedon. A character that just staggers me with how much she captured my heart. I never expected someone like that (a troublemaker, illiterate and violent and brash) would. But Jo went for a bulletproof trope, for me and many others: world-ending sibling love. And you gradually learn, despite her reputation, Krystal is in no way a bad person. She has no traits to qualify her as such. Her short fuse and temper are a product of her environment, certainly, and the rest is just the usual judgment placed on a teenage girl who’s free with her sexuality.

God, the stories Jo told about all of them — Krystal and her mother, Terri, most of all. Terri’s stories were the hardest to read, and yet by far the most effective.

And I was blown away by the depth Jo developed in just about every other character. Andrew, Fats, Howard, Shirley, Samantha, Miles, Kay, Gavin, Tessa, Colin, Parminder, Sukhvinder — yeah, okay, I’m just listing everyone. All of them, I mean it. I started off wanting nothing more than to see Simon get hit by a bus by the end of the book, but even that had abated slightly near the end, much with Andrew’s own hatred, though I didn’t entirely approve. Moving to Reading certainly won’t change his behavior, but maybe they’d all be able to escape in time, alive. Maybe Andrew and Paul won’t continue the cycle someday

I’m struck too by how Shirley is probably the biggest villain in the novel (the shades of heroism and villainy are all tones of gray, and I like that a lot too) — I could never quite detest Howard, I have to admit, I especially liked his rapport with Samantha. Shirley, though, struck me as a variation of Umbridge. Mild-mannered, sweetly polite, frilly bigotry — china celebrating the royal family instead of frolicking kittens.

Notable quotes I marked along the way:

He tried to give his wife pleasure in little ways, because he had come to realize, after nearly two decades together, how often he disappointed her in the big things. It was never intentional. They simply had very different notions of what ought to take up most space in life.

And Barry Fairbrother’s death scene was very reminiscent to me of when Harry falls to the ground with his scar burning, the moment before Cedric Diggory is murdered:

Then pain such as he had never experienced sliced through his brain like a demolition ball. He barely noticed the smarting of his knees as they smacked onto the cold tarmac; his skull was awash with fire and blood; the agony was excruciating beyond endurance, except hat endure it he must, for oblivious was still a minute away.

I appreciated this specific comparison to very real social/racial tension parallels:

It swiftly became common lore in Pagford that houses in the Fields had become the prize and goal of every benefit-supported Yarvil family with school-age children; that there was a great ongoing scramble across the boundary line from the Cantermill Estate, much as Mexicans streamed into Texas.

I was also particularly struck by this description of what Kay the social worker has found in her time — I think it might have been an acknowledgement of Jo’s previous work, the real-world take on what she first wrote (Harry growing up in the Dursleys’ cupboard):

But she had seen far worse: welts and sores, gashes and burns, tar-black bruises; scabies and nits; babies lying on carpets covered in dog shit; kids crawling on broken bones; and once (she dreamed of it, still), a child who had been locked in a cupboard for five days by his psychotic stepfather.

When Simon, with the forced assistance of his sons, manages to correctly install and start up a stolen computer while verging close to a berserker fit:

A tourniquet of fear was released; relief gushed through three of the watchers; Simon stopped pulling his Neanderthal face. Andrew visualized a line of Japanese men and women in white coats; the people who had assembled this flawless machine, all of them with delicate, dexterous fingers like Paul’s; they were bowing to him, sweetly civilized and gentle. Silently, Andrew blessed them and their families. They would never know how much had hung on this particular machine working.

To solve a serial hacking and defamation issue:

Shirley had understood barely one word in ten of the technical jargon that the young man had spewed at her. She knew that “hack” meant to breach illegally, and when he student stopped talking his gibberish, she was left with the confused impression that the Ghost had somehow managed to find out people’s passwords, maybe by questioning them cunningly in casual conversation.

She had therefore emailed everybody to request that they change their password and make sure not to share the new one with anybody. This was what she meant by “I’ve taken care of it.”

And there are many more I noted, but they are spoilery and depend on context, appreciation of the characters as they’ve been developed up to that point, so I won’t mention them here.

But I re-read so many sections near the end so many times. They hold a deep, deep impact, and I got choked up repeatedly. Even the Rihanna and Jay-Z song that Jo chose to include at significant moments near the beginning and at the very end transcended itself, I believe.

In short, I loved this book powerfully and intimately, the way I used to love books in elementary school, when it felt like they were for me alone. Part of me wants to read reviews and analyses to gather bigger themes and messages and details that I missed (was Parminder justified or vindictive in refusing to go with Miles?), but I can’t bring myself to look for them yet. I don’t want to encounter anything critical; I vaguely recall seeing someone say it was a poor form of satire, and I want to punch them in the face. There’s nothing satirical about it.

And I firmly believe the world would be a better place if The Casual Vacancy were read by all adults, and that, I think, is a good measure of a book’s quality.

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