Does this sound about right? “Rowling’s refusal to conform to happy endings demonstrates the fact that The Casual Vacancy is not meant to be entertainment. She wants to deal with real-life issues, not the fantasy world to which women writers are often confined. Her ambition is to create a portrait of the complexity of ordinary human life: quiet tragedies, petty character failings, small triumphs, and quiet moments of dignity. The complexity of her portrait of provincial society is reflected in the complexity of individual characters. The contradictions in the character of the individual person are evident in the shifting sympathies of the reader. One moment, we pity Stuart, the next we judge him critically.”
Actually, that’s a summary of Eliot’s Middlemarch with a few names and tenses changed (actual quote from SparkNotes). Some online reviewers, especially those who read the free previews, have rated this book low on Amazon and elsewhere and stated that it was boring so they did not continue. These reviews may be translated as “tl;dr” comments. The readers might say the same of Middlemarch.
Many of the early professional reviews also seem to me to miss the mark, perhaps because the reviewer had to read the book in a few hours with a phalanx of Little, Brown lawyers on hand. They seem to have skimmed for easy quotes and have missed much of the context that situates what they’ve plucked from the text. Like some of the the sample-only readers, they have not taken the very obvious cues of the novel’s opening that it will build gradually. Unlike the Harry Potter series, this is not action/adventure, or even mystery.
The Casual Vacancy indeed starts slowly. Because the novel at first presents itself as a comedy of manners, it’s no surprise that Rowling takes some time to introduce the large cast of characters as they first react to Barry's death. While most people are initially socially appropriate (at least in public), the death inspires both noble and self-serving thoughts. Like the people of Pagford, the reader only discovers these aspirations and interpretations as the story and relationships unfold. The vacancy left by Barry turns out to be anything but casual.
We see families interacting with their members and with other families. The genre gradually shifts to become more plot- and action-driven as thoughts become deeds, sometimes not for the better. The reader sees several slow train wrecks in the offing as events inexorably roll on.
This is not a happy book, and it is not uplifting. Most of the characters are unlikable, though as their stories unfold, their complexity in some cases increases the reader’s sympathy and identification. There is a great deal of swearing, shagging, smoking, and drug use (none of which would have been particularly shocking from another author). There are many mean, small-minded acts. Yet none of this is glamorized (most of it falls in the faintly absurd to somewhat gross spectrum), and it is matched by many characters’ sad evaluations of their own relationships, longing to be closer to (or farther from) other people, agony over acne and hair, helplessness, and fear. People wish they had each others’ families. Triangulation, insults, secrets, and violence occur behind closed doors. Rowling realistically depicts pettiness, teenage angst, teen and adult posturing, and the sometimes stifling and intrusive nature of small towns and their politics. It is like being at your social services job day and night. It is depressing. It is also very funny, though this is only occasionally presented in character’s actions and is more frequently evident in surprising adjectives, comparisons, or characters’ thoughts that veer from what is expected. There are, though, events that are deeply, wonderfully absurd, and all the more so for the earnestness and self-absorption with which they are enacted.
Grief is a constant theme--grief for lost people and lost opportunities. Rage, both acute and simmering, appears time and again. The major actions catalyzed by Barry’s death and its initial implications can be characterized as The Long Secret meets anti-Potter. What happens when teenagers take matters into their own hands? Generally speaking, the outcome is not good. Where Harry saves his world, the adolescents of Pagford destroy it. Most of the adults, who strive to assuage their inchoate longings with gossip, sexy boy bands, and reading posts by Barry’s ghost, and who regularly misinterpret motives and are often wounded by each other, are no better or more mature. More complex than Harry Potter, this story ends without tidy wrap-ups, and more like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ghost indeed exacts his due, though Jesus-like Barry might be horrified by this misuse of his legacy.
Barry’s saintliness probably would have showed more tarnish had he been alive and present through the book; he serves as a symbol of, among other things, the other characters’ longing for a Jesus-like figure to hold their need for absolution. However, redemptions are few and far between, with the only unequivocal example being the river-dunking of Sukhvinder Jawanda.
A few criticisms:
Like the Harry Potter series, this is structured as a chiasmus. The reader who guesses or observes this may find the events of the end of the book too predictable.
After the second incident, the third time a teen trashed an adult online seemed reductive and mechanical.
While I’m not familiar with UK law, I will imagine that had Parminder Jawanda aided Howard during a medical emergency, she would have been in the clear. Why Kay would violate a client’s confidentiality several times, with no consequences, I cannot say, but it seemed like an easy way for Rowling to share information without straightforward exposition.
Exposition is one of Rowling’s stylistic weaknesses in Harry Potter, and there was still much telling rather than showing here. However, The Casual Vacancy is an improvement. Characters have more interiority, and even though this sometimes has the feel of interior exposition (as when Fats ruminates over an “authenticity” most reminiscent of Sartre’s Nausea, there is somewhat less told about the characters by an impersonal narrator. The shifts of perspective throughout the novel contribute immensely to Rowling’s ability to give us characters in action rather than words about characters and pronouncements about their actions. In this regard, it's better than Harry Potter.
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