REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy (J. K. Rowling)

ImageDamn you, Mrs. Rowling, you are destroying my childhood. I spent a majority of my secondary school education escaping to the densely imagined and box-of-wonders world of Hogwarts. How dare you follow up your stories of magic and bravery and wonder and friendship and decency and good and evil with such an unrelentingly grubbily grim and depressing novel.

Your new world, Mrs. Rowling, of Pagford, is not up to scratch. I resent you intensely for subjecting me to five-hundred pages of self-involved middle-class snobbish bastards. I object that you dare to dishonor the memory of such joys as Invisibility Cloaks and Every-Flavour Beans by venturing into the sour areas of manipulative sex, addiction, rape, domestic abuse, mental illness and self-harm. These things are not a part of Harry Potter words. Dumbledore would never stand for it—he’d clear up Pagford in no time.

Or, alternatively:

Damn you, Mrs. Rowling, it really does seem a bit thick for the richest novelist in history to write a novel attacking the moneyed classes. Was it strictly necessary that every underclass character spoke with Oliver Twist dialogue overladen with apostrophes?

Your money and career was built upon the success of a successful fantasy for children. To venture into adult territory seems a bit presumptuous; clearly your editors are incapable of saying no to your every whim. The Casual Vacancy swings from satire to kitchen sink drama to a sudden dip into out and out melodrama at the conclusion.

And whilst we have the red pen out, might I suggest that you cut your use of physical metaphors? Stomachs cannot really tighten—perhaps stick to Dumbledore? He may have a spell to cure that.

Or, alternatively:

Damn you, Mrs. Rowling, for producing the strongest work of fiction this year. It is a brave and incisive look at the divided nature of Modern Britain. Your phenomenal success with Harry Potter has now been matched by your venture into literature. Superb.

Or, in my own words:

None and all of the bloody above at once.

See, I carefully avoided reviews of The Casual Vacancy before finishing the novel. Which has taken me quite awhile, even though I sped through the first half—it’s a pretty thick tome. I avoided reviews because, unsurprisingly, there was clearly going to be a backlash to the kind of book that acquires multiples stacks in Tesco without even having the scapegoat of ‘being for children’. The reviews are uniformly sniffy and snobbish, even the positive ones. About 70% of them put my back up reading them, but I’m not going to dissect them. I’m just going to state the ‘facts’ as I feel about the book.

  1. Yes, it is bloody grim. Rowling has waded straight into a wide range of potentially controversial and definitely adult topics. It’s hard to shake a feeling that this might be deliberate, defiantely walking the other way. If she wasn’t famous for wizards and wands, would it be necessary to have worked her way through quite such a shopping list of domestic ills? No idea, but I wouldn’t be asking this if her name wasn’t J. K. Rowling.
  2. Yes, there is a lot of swearing. Yes, her teenagers swear. Thank fuck for that. No teenager talks like Harry Potter, I can assure you.
  3. No, not every character is an unlikeable figure. There are the teenagers. Generally speaking, though, the adult figures are quite difficult to like. Easy to understand, but not to like. The teenage characters are quite different. The prime example is Fats Wall—in many ways a completely sociopath who does some awful things in the course of the novel, but is somehow infinitely more sympathetic than, say, Gavin, who effectively takes the whole novel to reach the clearly evil depths of dumping a girlfriend he doesn’t much like.
  4. No, the ending is not melodramatic and overcooked. Well—perhaps a bit of melodramatic. But since when was melodrama such a bad thing? I often think literary reviewers say melodramatic when what they actually mean is ‘emotionally engaging’ rather than beautifully worded but devoid of feeling.
  5. No, J. K. Rowling is not a clunky writer. There are occasional odd moments, but there are also some wonderful turns of phrase and skillfully woven moments. As a writer and a reader I have every respect for the artfully constructed sentence, but I have much more profound respect for a writer who can create a world and sweep you along with a story. Pagford is, depressingly, a very real world, and I’ve just read the last 200 pages at 2 in the morning, so what does that say about the strength of the plot?
  6. No, this does not destroy her previous work, or betray my love of Harry Potter. I am a rational person capable of understanding that she is a writer capable of doing more than one thing, and not in fact a robot in employ of the British government to pump out ‘much loved children’s literature.’

So overall? Don’t read reviews. Read the book. Forget it has been hyped, forget it has been slated. Both are unfair.

Mind you, we could still use Dumbledore to come clean up Pagford, and spread a little joy. It might be a great story, with a sledgehammer-to-the-heart ending, but it could really do with some glimmers of brightness somewhere in the mix.

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