22 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy

Disclaimer: This is, as clearly stated above, a review of the new JK Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy.  Not too many overt plot point spoilers, but read at your own risk. 

To be honest, I feel a little strange writing this review now.  Not, I mean, right this very second.  I mean now, nearly a month since the book came out.  I've never read a JK Rowling book in more than 24 hours before.  Something is not. right.  But, I suppose, if Harry himself has to grow up and take on adult responsibilities than I probably ought to as well.  Gone are the days when I could stay up until well past 4:00 AM with a book.  At least not until summer comes around again, and even then I start falling asleep.  Gosh that makes me feel old.

But in my defense, The Casual Vacancy isn't really that type of book.  Not quite the quick moving, action oriented fare that I'm used to from Rowling.  It's a much more traditional British-style novel with emphasis on character development over plot.  I found myself having to read and re-read sections of the first few chapters just to re-orient myself to the novel.  It looked and felt and smelled like Rowling but something was just different.  It took some time. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure after 500 pages that I'm entirely used to it.  For one thing, the narrative was much choppier and harder to follow.  Potter sits comfortably in Harry's head most of the time.  Vacancy jumps between one character to the next often without much transition making it hard to keep track of who is who.  There are a huge number of characters to keep track of as well - at least 20 to rotate through - I'm not entirely sure I managed to keep track of everyone.  It wasn't as smooth a narrative as I generally see from Rowling.

The Casual Vacancy is, in many ways, similar to Potter.  There is a huge amount of character development that is rewarding and allows for the reader (in a very Atticus Finch like way) to be careful about judging characters too quickly for their actions.  It also has a definite sense of dark humor and an underlying push for good virtues and strong choices in the face of difficult odds that certainly resonated through Hogwarts.  Only there's really nothing terribly magical in the towns of Pagford and Yarvil.  The obstacles to overcome are not symbolic dementors or bad teachers with cruel quills or dragons protecting their eggs- these are very real challenges of drugs and affairs and broken families and children who despise their parents and, in some cases, vice versa.  There was a rather nice bit of symbolism in a different kind of ghost, but that was about as close as the book ever got to the symbolic power of the Potter books- everything is was quite raw.

There's no question: Vacancy is a very adult book.  And by adult, I mean adult.  The language is incredibly harsh and doesn't let up from start to finish.  Most of the characters in this book are leading lives that are not moral at all.  Although I thought the payoff of the book was able to overcome the harsh material, it is not something to be taken lightly if you choose to read it.  It's a far cry from Potter and I'd probably (definitely) get into huge amounts of trouble if I recommended it to any of my students.  I was reading it while working at the BYU football game a few weeks ago and had one game-goer ask me if he'd have to see his bishop after reading it.  Well, no.  I don't think so.  But the characters in the book certainly need to.  Read with caution if you don't like (or can't tollerate) that sort of thing.

There was so much talk before the book was published about how Rowling would never be able to top or compete with herself after the success of Potter, and that's probably true.  It also really doesn't matter.  She can write whatever she wants now and be successful or not successful and it won't make an ounce of difference to her financial situation.  So I can understand her desire to break the mold away from Potter.  I did wonder several times as I read through Vacancy, though, whether or not all that language and crass behavior was really necessary to prove her point, or really all that true to who she seems to be.  I don't fault an author for swearing when the words are right, and I would never presume to tell an author only to write characters leading nice, moral lives.  Some of my favorite books (Lord of the Flies, 1984, Catcher in the Rye) are predominantly about characters with either a poor understanding of what a moral life generally involves or have a blatant disregard for that kind of lifestyle.  But there were a handful of times as I read Vacancy where I wondered if "that word" was the right word, or if "that scene" was the only way to portray what was needed for the characters.  Was she going for shock value?  To prove to people that she can write more than just for children and teenagers?  I think there are better ways to do so than through that much content.  Sometimes it felt a bit like a Disney child star taking on a rated R film just to prove that they're grown up now, instead of just nicely transitioning out of Disney and into other projects.  I wished she wouldn't try so hard to prove herself.

That said, the payoff at the end of the book is worth it.  The final images in particular were so striking that my patience and persistant belief that Rowling wouldn't write something that didn't pay off was certainly rewarded.  It just took much more patience from me as a reader to get to that point.  The best compliment I can pay this book, or any book, is that I am still thinking about it.  Honestly, it's left me profoundly grateful for an atonement that covers not only sins, but also considers the circumstances around us and our own perspective on the choices we have to make.  We are told that the Lord does not just look at the outward appearance - he looks at our heart.  At our intents.  We are asked to become perfect in an imperfect world with imperfect abilities of perception.  We do the best we can with what we know, with what we can see, and can then be incredibly relieved and overjoyed when we know that those times when we fall short, sometimes through no fault of our own, it will still work out.

Overall, I'm glad that I read it.  It was a good, interesting read and I'm excited to see what she comes up with next.  But I'm not quite jumping out of my skin with excitement about it.  Parts of it were completely brilliant.  Parts were a bit overboard.  The flow of the story was weak.  Hopefully her next foray in the Post-Potterverse will be a bit more balanced.

1 comment:

Hulme Family Awesomeness said...

Thanks for writing this review Joni! I've been really curious about this book, and while I don't think I'll be reading it (thanks to your honest review), I really appreciate your insight into the literature and into Rowling.