The Casual Vacancy: Small town, big problems

I decided to read J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy because I figured that if it’s even half as good as the magnificent Harry Potter series, it’ll still be pretty damn good.  Well, the book starts out damn good but then slips down a few notches.  It’s an intimate character study of the residents of the small town of Pagford and their myriad reactions to the death of one of their own, Barry Fairbrother.  Barry happens to be on the town council, which is in the midst of some sensitive re-zoning decisions, so his death has more than simply personal repercussions. Rowling establishes a small-scale panorama of Pagford, full of strivers and poseurs concerned with protecting their own tiny fiefdoms.

The book opens with Rowling’s typical mastery of detail, both in creating the town and in her incisive awareness of how people respond to Barry’s death  – shock; shadenfreude; the morbid, self-important thrill of sharing tragic news with others.  Even if you’ve never experienced the particular emotion Rowling describes, you can instantly recognize it as authentic because she does it with such clarity.

The problems begin when Rowling moves from her characters’ interiority to their external circumstances.  She follows the “each person has her own problems” formula so deliberately that it starts to feel mechanical.  Worse, it sometimes feels inauthentic, which is unusual for Rowling. And she keeps piling on the suffering until it reaches a contrived crescendo, reminding me of movies like Crash and Babel.  By the time we got to the rape and incest, I’d switched off.

The misery is especially potent in the sections about Krystal Weedon, a teenager living with her mother and young brother in the estates, or low-income housing, surrounding Pagford.  Krystal’s home is plagued by parental neglect, drug use, criminality, and sexual violence.  Some of the details about Krystal, down to her tight ponytails and tracksuits, remind me of the lead character in the British film Fish Tank, another young girl chafing against the constraints of life in the estates.

With her focus on the damaged lives of adults and their children, Rowling illustrates how the young pay for their parents’ problems. They pay the price for their parents’ violence, drug addiction, and mental illness by being borderline sociopaths, painfully insecure, or self-destructive.  Only in one case, that of Dr. Parminder Jawanda and her daughter Sukhvinder, does the final crisis of the book actually bring parent and child to a better understanding of each other.  There’s hope that, with the newfound support of her parents, especially her mother, Sukhvinder may be able to move beyond her self-destructive behavior.  But there’s very little of that hope to go around in Rowling’s initially absorbing, ultimately bleak novel.


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7 Responses to The Casual Vacancy: Small town, big problems

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Doesn’t sound much like my cup of tea!

    • popgoddess says:

      You know, for a book about Brits, there is surprisingly little tea drinking 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Well, actually, I like tea! (I don’t drink coffee. Ever.)

        In this case, it’s more that Rowling never really grabbed me as a writer. I enjoyed her imagination on the magic stuff (and by book seven that had become much of a sameness), but you subtract all that and what remains isn’t really my cuppa.

        It’s kind of a lurid, melodramatic story about a kid who is abused by foster parents and some teachers. The kid has some improbable adventures, largely due to disobeying just about everyone (and being a Pawn of Destiny). That’s all pretty standard narrative, and since it involves kids it doesn’t really connect with me that much.

        Rowling’s new effort is more adult, but everything I’ve read (your review was the most detailed, so thank you for confirming my growing view) suggests this is a lurid, tawdry human soap opera. With no magic or science fiction elements of any kind.

        So, way, totally, utterly, completely, not my cuppa! 😀

        You know what, I just had a flash connection here, and being Pop Goddess, maybe you’ve seen this movie and will grok my comparison. The movie is Carnage (2011), by the infamous Roman Polanski, and stars Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz (!!) and Kate Winslet. It’s based on the French stage play God of Carnage.

        Now, keeping in mind that non-SF human drama is not a usual interest of mine. I’m addicted to that extra element of SF or magic (or crime or action). Even most RomComs don’t do too much for me. But there is a point where craft and quality and texture and taste and style all rise to a level that grabs you, makes you say, “Wow!” (Love Actually would be a good nomination in the RomCom category.)

        I would normally read the description of Carnage and go, “Meh.” Even with such a stellar cast (Foster! Walz!! Reilly and Winslet are no slouches, either!), not really my cuppa. But watching a few moments while channel surfing captured me and kept me watching enthralled. I’d actually tapped into it fairly early and saw most of it, but the cable channel was re-running it immediately and I watched the whole thing again. It was that good.

        Kind of reminds me of Gosford Park, another human drama (although it does come with a murder mystery) that isn’t really my cuppa, but which I find utterly enthralling (but then I’m an Altman fan, anyway).

        I donno… it just makes the Rowling book sound like bad Unreality TV to me. [shrug] But I really, really appreciate you taking that bullet on my behalf!! 😀

      • popgoddess says:

        That’s an unusual take on Harry Potter! I can’t say you’re wrong on the facts; it’s just that my response to the story happens to be different. Although I was also annoyed at how regularly Harry disobeyed the adults in his life. I think there was a tension between that and the adults often being wrong, as well.

        I haven’t watched Carnage or the stage version, although based on reviews of the play, I felt like it was similar to the play Clybourne Park – people being very ugly once the facade of social niceties is stripped away. I’ll have to check out the film, and if you’re interested, you can check out my review of Clybourne Park under Live Performances.

        For me, Rowling’s book had more going on than that – more detail, more intimate knowledge of human behavior – but I guess I was hoping for more.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        😆 Well, don’t take it too seriously. It was more of a dark jazz riff on HP than a serious point of view. I was just trying to highlight the difference between the magic and the plot sans-magic. At least for me, the value of the books comes from the magic aspects, the “SF” parts, if you will. Take those away, and I find the story a lot less interesting.

        But absolutely that’s just me. Personal taste and such.

        I understand Rowling’s book isn’t as narrowly focused or as pointed as Carnage or Clybourne Park (based on your description). It’s just me — I don’t value human drama that much (it’s gotten to be an old story to me) unless there’s a little something extra. Science fiction is my favorite something extra, but there are other flavors. Mystery, for example. Or even just a favorite actor.

        So, unless her next book includes a wizard or a spaceship (both would be interesting), I’m probably done with Rowling. 🙂

        [Don’t read this too seriously… I’m grinning the whole time I’m writing.]

      • popgoddess says:

        I get that. Sometimes I think I’m getting too limited in my tastes, that I don’t really fall for anything without a sci-fi/supernatural element. But then a few great straight dramas break through, like Friday Night Lights, Good Wife, Justified (so excited for its new season next month!).

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yep, likewise. I don’t worry about it anymore. There’s enough non-SF on my favorites list (let alone in my general tastes) that I don’t feel completely genre-bound. I do sometimes think I should make more of an effort with the classics (still haven’t read Moby Dick, for example)… books I ought to read (or have read, actually. Project Gutenberg is a godsend; I’m slowly chewing away at a few there (Wooster and Jeeves, to be honest).

        Thing is, once you get away from most TV SF and away from the sexy teenage vampire meme and away from the young adult fantasy stuff and even away from a lot of mainstream SF, there is a wealth of extraordinary fiction that is a rich as any usual non-SF. It may not quite approach Hamlet levels, but easily does, say, Catcher in the Rye levels. To the extent that fiction examines the human condition, SF (good SF) does it as well as anything.

        But very few people read good SF, and it almost never is seen on TV (Firefly was good, Dr. Who is excellent, Star Trek was good (at times, great), Babylon 5 was pretty good… most of the rest are just mainstream pop SF).

        Which isn’t to say that mainstream pop SF is bad anymore than mainstream pop Drama is bad. When storytelling is done well, it’s a joy regardless of how “deep” or “meaningful” the story is. But there is a difference between telling a rippin’ good yarn and telling a tale with a point or moral.

        (Hmmm… wonder if there’s a post in this….:grin:)

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