The Casual Vacancy A Dark Reprieve
- Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: The Casual Vacancy
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
When I heard the author of the Harry Potter series was writing a novel for adults, I was overjoyed. Whatever one may think of her former subject matter, her writing is fantastic. Richly-layered characters, evocative descriptions, a masterful touch with the English language . . . what's not to love?
As it turns out, plenty. The Casual Vacancy is dark, depressing, and often surprisingly dull. Set in a small town populated by characters whose only joy is to tear down each other, one grim scene follows on the heels of another. Parents hate their children, who despise them in return. Spouses treat their partners with contempt. Roughly half the village is actively plotting to bring down the other half. The writing is still brilliant, occasionally deliciously funny, and evocative, but the subject matter is so grim it hardly seems worth the effort.
The vocabulary alone makes this read for mature audiences only, as do the attitudes toward and descriptions of sexual encounters. The f-word abounds, as do many of the more unpleasant profanities. (Probably even more than most American readers realize; British curse words don't always match ours.) Some of the grimly humorous sections may also go over U.S. readers' heads due to very British wording.
The plot follows the machinations of various villagers after one of their own drops dead at the local golf club. Barry Fairbrother was a local boy from the wrong side of the tracks who made good. Now his spot on the local council (akin to our city council) is up for grabs and a crucial vote is at stake. As if that's not bad enough, Barry's "ghost" starts spilling nasty secrets on the council's Web site, wreaking havoc in the small community. (There's no supernatural element involved; the ghost in question is all too human.)
The point of view jumps from one mostly unpleasant character to another, but we spend a lot of time in the company of teenage Andrew and his best friend Fats. Both boys come from difficult homes and both tend to make the worst of a bad situation. I found Fats particularly unpleasant. He has a thing about authenticity—which Fats takes to mean indulging his basest impulses as long as he's authentic about it. Bullying other students, having casual sex with the local ‘easy' girl, being hateful to his parents…it's all part of his authentic nature.
The girl in question, Krystal Weedon, is a byword in the village. Everyone knows her—or knows about her—but no one can be bothered to do anything to help. Krystal lives in the Fields, the low-income housing estate more affluent villagers affect to ignore. Her mother is an addict, her father unknown, and her baby brother left to her care. Of all the sad characters in this story, Krystal is in many ways both the saddest and the most likable. Unfortunately for her, in this godless, heartless world this little lost soul doesn't stand a chance. Bless her heart, she'd have been better off at Hogwarts.
A big part of what made the Harry Potter books so fabulous was their emphasis on friendship, doing the right thing, and overcoming evil with good. In contrast, The Casual Vacancy is a dark, hopeless place where all hope is lost and all ends in tragedy. Even the ending's attempt to bring a smidgen of light into the darkness is too little too late. You'll see many reviews hailing The Casual Vacancy as a literary masterpiece, but to my mind, it's a waste of an exceptional writer's talents and not worth the investment of time to read.
Language: Rough. The f-word and similar sayings are scattered throughout.
Sex:Quite a bit of conversation and fantasies about and the actual act of, but no one seems to enjoy it much, least of all the reader. There is a (mercifully brief) rape scene.
Destructive Behaviors: One character is a flat-out addict; we meet the pusher as well. Others drink to excess, engage in cutting, and exhibit other destructive behaviors.
Basic morality is sadly lacking. Characters break almost every commandment without a second thought. One character is involved in Eastern religion and refers to her guru. No one respects anyone else, whether parent/child, spouse/spouse, or just human to human. The entire story reflects a conspicuous lack of hope. It's a dark, cynical view of life that left this reader feeling both sad and a little annoyed to have wasted so many hours in such depressing company.
*This Review First Published 10/10/2012
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