Monday, November 5, 2012

Nothing Casual about The Casual Vacancy

We librarians are as time constrained as our customers are as it applies to checking out books. So a 500 page whopper like J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, no matter how quickly it moves, can't always be completed by a working person within the 2 week limit. I'll admit that I'm on overtime myself but I figure the library needs the $$.

I expected plenty of controversy and sour grapes from reviewers now that Ms. Rowling has moved onto the adult literature stage and it was there. Few reviews were glowing and one writer even snarkily commented that spending time in Pagford, Rowling's fictional village in England where the vacancy occurs, was like spending a week with the Dursleys! That was funny. But not really accurate.

J. K. Rowling would appear to have a very jaundiced view of humanity which can make for depressing reading. The thing is that she also has a ferociously biting sense of humor that offsets the dim view of her small town denizens. The fact that she's right on the money, so accurate, so scathing in her depiction of the class warfare that has spoiled British life for so long and which has now crossed the pond to infect the United States, leaves me in awe of her skill.

Readers here in Southwest Florida will find her story particularly apropos. It's really a study of the haves and the have nots as well as a look at deep seated prejudices. Because we're in an area of extreme wealth, gated communities, and $300 a game golf courses that actually abut lower income communities peopled with blue collar retirees, the working poor and a large immigrant population, we see this kind of dichotomy everyday at the grocery store, at work, and in our schools. The English town of Pagford could be anywhere U.S.A. and it isn't pretty.

The plot surrounds the sudden death of a member of the town council who has been involved in a controversial battle between the quaint Pagford and the neighboring low income area called The Fields. Half of the townspeople would like to annex The Fields into Pagford and half are dead set against it. Who will fill the deceased man's seat on the council and what will he do to get there?

No, it doesn't sound like much of a plot, does it? But, in fact, Rowling manages to introduce readers to a complete microcosm of society and believe me, what shows on the surface is not at all related to what's going on in these peoples' heads! Among the teens there is angst and despair. Abused as a kid with a drug addict for a mother, Krystal Weedon acts out sexually in order to get attention. She is one of the characters I really got attached to in hopes that life would pull a turnaround for her.

A local physician who also serves on the council has lived in Pagford all her life but is still seen as a "Paki bitch" when push comes to shove. And speaking of pushing and shoving, there's an enormous amount of spousal abuse going on behind the pretty curtained windows of Pagford. You watch it happen with one eye turned from the page just waiting for the women to unleash their pent up rage.

Rowling does an especially good job with men, burrowing down into their psyches. In particular, the ongoing interior monologue of the attorney, Gavin, as he tries to extricate himself from a relationship with a social worker, Kay, who has moved to Pagford hoping to insinuate herself into his life, is pricelessly realistic. The tug of war between men and women is alive and well in Pagford and honestly depicted to a fault. Rowling pointedly shows the hypocrisy of the people on the hill, actually believing that they are above those down in the Field, even though the same devastation is being played out behind closed doors in both neighborhoods.

It's enough to make you blush when you read about a foible that Rowling has zeroed in on with her razor wit. How does she know this stuff? All those years of poverty when she sat in cafes and penned her fantastical Harry Potter world? Observing, observing, observing....

So, bottom line? Do I recommend The Casual Vacancy? I hate to be on the fence about anything but this is a time when I'm torn. It's a great expenditure of time and it won't make you happy. Life's short, I get that. I had to do it. Inquiring minds needed to know. Now though? I'm just looking for my next read to be happy.

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