Friday, 15 November 2013

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy: JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy has received very mixed reviews and this did make me more curious despite a title that just didn't grab me. Perhaps not being bedazzled by her former magic (being a JK Rowling first timer) allowed me to enjoy The Casual Vacancy untainted (I'm just not that into wizards but I am sure her earlier work is  brilliant). I had no reason to worry that her young fans might pick up this hard hitting book, and why should JK Rowling, its obviously an adult book, nor did I feel the need to pun on the word muggle like crazy, or be traumatised by her frequent use of the word ‘cunt' among other colourful language.

There are uncomfortable descriptions of a teen being raped, prostitution, drug addiction, self harming, mental health issues, bullying, casual sexism and racism...and all this set in a small community, who'd have thought? (Probably anyone that's ever lived in one) But a large part of the message of this novel is how we look away from what is uncomfortable.

We all know to jump ship from children’s literature into adult is a pretty stormy one to make. I think JK Rowling has done a good job with this socially conscious writing, and going by her global success and people I know that swear her books are amazing, her writing has always bridged the generations, and she’s clearly a good storyteller. So why all the negativity, hmm I think mostly readers don't like their favourite authors changing track and this can manifest into begrudging her name on a book other than the creator of a boy wizard. No wonder she tried out a pseudonym for her crime novel.

The passion with which she tells the stories of this small town and neighbouring council estate are evidence enough for me that JK Rowling was writing from personal experience; a ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘not in my backyard mentality’ in modern society that she genuinely cares about, that is regarding poverty, struggle and mental health.

Yes it is furious in places,  it could be said it has a smattering of socialist manifesto, but at the foundation of it is the way JK Rowling has managed to pull you into the lives of people that in the past, you more than likely have tried to avoid, ignore or blame for a downward spiral in your community while basking in some of your own complacent privilege. We all know that poverty is the root of social unrest, domestic disquiet, harrowing abuse and Rowling writes the story in a way that, at the start, you may sit on the high horse of a Pagfordian, but gradually you unravel your prejudice and actually start to care about the characters from the Fields, particularly Krystal Weedon. Krystal's voice in the novel is hard to hear, she is mostly shown through others eyes and this I think was intentional.

Maybe the politics that simmer under the plot are what make the novel hard to digest for some? And perhaps JK Rowlings donations to the Labour party, and her involvement in the Leveson Inquiry, and the Daily Mail (among others) review of the book smacked more of a character assassination? 'Give us whimsy you champagne socialist' is screaming from a lot of the negativity surrounding it while her well documented personal struggles are ignored. The perils of being one of the most successful writers I suppose. In the interview linked at the bottom, she talks of how the Potter books have liberated her writing, despite having to hide from the press now.

As is always the case with a book review, I don’t want to give away enormous spoilers but here’s one (look away now). It begins with bad news and it ends with more. Everything between is simultaneously recognisable, shocking, mundane, despondent, small town yet big picture and ultimately it does feel like a personal piece. That is why its readable, touching and devastating; the real tragedy is that this ‘fiction’ happens right under our noses, there’s no made up world, no magic wands, and that’s the leap she made as a writer that you also take reading it.

Back to the title. The Casual Vacancy makes absolute sense to me now (outside of the local council terminology), a sort of laissez faire with emptiness and not interfering in the beds people make for themselves, a shallow grave of lives that refuses to see the web of cause and effect mingled with local politics because we don’t like seeing the inconvenience of poverty, or believe that one tiny shred of help could make a difference. The digital ghost can’t fill that vacancy through the children of the town and the outcome of the loss of Fairbrother impacts on the community in a sea of sadness you expect will blow over for most. So what can you do?

Read this book for a start. If you've got a pulse, you will get a lump in your throat. That's if you can be bothered to think about circumstances as well as personal responsibility. 

 ‘…and the congregation averted its eyes’. The last words of the novel leave it with a despair that almost smothers the tiny seed of hope in it, leaving you with an after taste that will ultimately open your mind to the devastating consequences of ignoring those that shouldn't be ignored.

Related Link:

BBC interview with JK Rowling

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