Santa Paula, CA, United States | Member Since 2011
This story of the WWII occupied Channel Island of Guernsey is pleasantly conveyed by the exchange of letters between the protagonist who discovers it, and the inhabitants who survived it. Admittedly I fell in love with these characters by virtue of our shared experience: the unexpected joy of finding yourself in books. An indomitable heroine, an occupying army, a need for distraction, and a dearth of reading material produce some endearing insights to the human condition from the unlikely members of a make-shift reading group. The device of the letters to and from a quirky, if slightly predictable cast of characters reveals the dynamics inherent to a small, insular community, making the disruption of enemy occupation all the more painful. The narrators were pitch-perfect with just enough local flavor to transport you to time and place. The love story used to resolve the plot was facile and unsatisfactory, but impinged only slightly on the thoroughly enjoyable experience of sharing a good read with some unlikely cohorts.
About half-way through the book I realized two things: first, the characters populating Rowling’s suburban Pagford were an entirely depressing lot, and that Rowling had no intention of revealing their better selves. After that I realized that probably this microscopic (and yes, often tedious) examination of the complex nuances of their tragic faults was essential, and without it the climax would not resonate. I decided I was willing to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt, and stick it out. I'm glad I did. Rowling is an extraordinarily gifted observer of the human condition – a talent that gave the HP books their edge, and this story its raison d'etre. With deft and unaffected details she peels away layer upon layer of each character's social facade to reveal deep inherent flaws and their painful origins. Those observations are at once brutally unapologetic and dispassionately expository. Without them, the "casual vacancy," (both the literal and metaphorical) at the heart of the story would lose its potency. Like a reverse denouement, the myriad layers of minutia are gradually piled high enough to provide a vantage point necessary for the reader to fully appreciate the tragedies that bookend the story. When the climax is reached, there is nowhere to look except back at that pile of ignobility, and realize that, while the first tragedy was an act of fate, the second could only have been the product of everyone’s worst selves working in concert. It's a point worth making. If you want a happy ending, this is not your story. If you can take your truth in the bare-stripped, relentless, and brilliantly revelatory flavor, and are not uncomfortable contemplating life’s bitter lessons, read on.
Tom Hollander's reading was without flaw. His gave vibrant believability to each character without gratuitous dramatization, or a single narrative misstep. I was astonished when, two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized I had not once “noticed” his narration at all – which is, for me, the highest praise. He moved so seamlessly in and out of characters, that between his narration and the utterly authentic and unfiltered voice that Rowling bestows to each character, I felt a little like a demon, occupying each soul in the scene at will.
Without commentary or editorial, Rowling reveals quotidian, suburban, predictable little Pagford, with all its pain and pathos laid bare, to be a microcosm of the stagnant social unconsciousness in which quiet tragedies are steeped. To view it so vividly and immersively was both unnerving and profound. I won’t soon forget this book.
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