I mentioned a little while ago that I finally got to read The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. Hurray! My friend Zach and I were very excited when it was announced (we are both Harry Potter nerds) and we both downloaded the preview chapters that were released a little before the book hit shelves. Zach bought it and, after a few false starts, finished the book during Christmas break. After having it checked out from the library for almost seven months, I finally buckled down and had it finished in a week. As the title says, this is a guest post by my friend Zach! I figured ya'll are probably tired of hearing me talk about my point of view, so I asked Zach to share his thoughts on the book.
When I heard J. K. Rowling was going to be releasing something entirely new, entirely not Harry Potter, I was ecstatic. Don't misread that; I love Harry Potter. But something brand new? I was excited. From the beginning, the level of detail presented in introducing the characters and simply telling the story was incredibly meticulous. However, painting mental pictures of the book was never difficult to say the least. And, just to get it out of my system, if you pick this book up thinking that you’ll be reminded in some way of Harry Potter, forget it. (But don’t let that stop you from reading it!!) Rowling has crafted a completely new tale that is not for the faint of heart, but is definitely one with much to say.
Upon entering into this novel we find ourselves in the small English parish of Pagford, which is not too far away from the hustle and bustle of the local city of Yarvil. Barry Fairbrother, who serves on the Pagford Parish Council, suddenly dies due to an aneurysm upon arriving at a restaurant to enjoy a would-be anniversary dinner with his wife. Nothing too crazy, right? Wrong. Fairbrother’s sudden death was like removing a keystone from the parish itself. Slowly but surely, Pagford began to societally cave in upon itself.
Fairbrother’s death tipped the balance of a heated battle within the Parish Council over whether or not to disassociate Pagford from its financial responsibilities to the Fields and hand it over to Yarvil. The Fields was a cheaply built public housing estate that was built to resolve post-WWII housing needs. Many in Pagford wanted nothing to do with the Fields because it brought the likes of the city too close to rural Pagford and was inhabited by many drug-ridden residents and terribly misbehaved children. It was a taint of sorts on the well-being of Pagford.
Having been born in the Fields, Fairbrother advocated strongly for keeping it within Pagford’s jurisdiction because of the great opportunities and support that Pagford could provide which Yarvil could not necessarily provide, such as a great education (from which he himself benefited). With Fairbrother’s death, his voice on the council was gone and the vacancy allowed for the anti-Fielders to more easily purge Pagford of their menace once and for all.
Fairbrother’s vacancy did more than just escalate the argument, however. The argument brought out the worst in people, tearing apart families that were just barely holding together previously. Simply put, one man’s death caused all hell to break loose.
In reading The Casual Vacancy, I found an appallingly realistic representation of the messed-up lives of many everyday people. I say ‘appallingly’ because I honestly had no idea just how bad some people can have it. The poverty, the drugs, the misery some children face because they fail their parents’ expectations, self-inflicted cruelty to numb life’s pains...it’s all here. If you think you know what’s going on in someone else’s life, guess again. Hiding behind a mask is all too easy, and Rowling exhibited that rather well.
One major issue that was really brought to my attention spawned from the whole debate over the Fields: how do we appropriately accommodate the poor, drug-ridden, misbehaved people of this world who live barbarically? I definitely do not believe that ignoring the problem is the correct solution, even though it is definitely the easy one. Why would I help someone who is purposefully ruining his or her life? Because every life on this earth matters. It would not be right to hand these people free solutions, but I believe that those who are in a much better position are meant to help out those who are not as fortunate, even if they choose to live like pigs. Someone needs to shine the light into these people’s lives to let them know there is more to life than shooting up or living wildly in squalor. I’m not completely sure what the solution looks like, but the answer is definitely not ignorance.
Sometimes I struggled to grasp the overall plot in this novel, as it was a little circuitous and seemingly non-existent at times. Sometimes the incredible detail took away from the overall conflict. However, The Casual Vacancy cleverly inserts you into a community whose social fabric collapses as the result of one man’s death and allows you to witness many different troubled lives, how they all seem to mysteriously interconnect, and the slow-in-coming realization that the social dilapidation of the community cannot continue.
If you pick up The Casual Vacancy, prepare to keep track of many characters and their various experiences. You may even have to take notes just to keep up (my mom is currently doing just that). I am not sure that I would hastily recommend this book to many people; however, I feel that if you are ready to be faced with a rather raw picture of life, can survive without too much obvious forward-moving action for a fair chunk of the book, and are willing to learn many new words (unless you are a walking dictionary), give Rowling’s latest work a try. While a little slow-paced, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this book. It was quite the eye-opener, but on the whole it was a well-crafted tale of a small town’s miseries with many lessons to be learned, all brought to you by good ol’ J.K.
Zach is a music and tech loving guy, majoring in Business Information Systems. He plays drums Sunday morning (one of four instruments he knows well), when home from school. While preferring to read sci-fi or fantasy fiction, he is also reading a lot of theology stuff right now. (This interest probably stems from a C. S. Lewis course from last semester, but this has not been confirmed). To complete the nerd image, Zach is a HUGE Doctor Who fan and is super psyched for the 50th Anniversary Episode this fall. You can follow Zach on Twitter (@zkantner) and check out his blog, Cacophonous Thought.