Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

No one knew what to expect from this, except that Rowling said it wasn’t going to be anything like the Harry Potter books. Well, she was right -- I wouldn’t have even known Rowling wrote it, if someone had given it to me with the author’s name blacked out. There’s not a speck of magic or fantasy to be found; instead we’ve got drug addiction, child abuse, poverty, hopelessness, and some very black humor. And guess what – I loved it!

As a sometime fan of dark fiction from the British Isles and Scandinavia it was evident to me that Rowling was using the same template as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Kate Atkinson when she created the English village of Pagford and its environs. A veneer of respectability hides a rotting infrastructure of cruelty and class warfare in this little place where the have-nots struggle for a toe-hold while the haves try to push them over the ledge. Last year, when writing about Val McDermid’s book A Darker Domain, I described the literary genre known as tartan noir: “a form of Scottish crime fiction characterized by troubled protagonists and plots that deal with questions of redemption.” The Casual Vacancy is set squarely within this genre and if it isn’t crime fiction, it’s certainly close.

Some critics complained this book was too long and the plot needlessly convoluted. I will admit that the book’s central event (the death of a local politician and the fight to replace him among the town’s warring factions) was a risky choice. And I have to admit that it was hard to care about that particular outcome. What I cared very much about were the myriad of characters on the edges of this drama and their individual stories, which were touching, tragic, and funny, all at the same time. Especially well done were the book’s teenagers, as you might expect.

If you are wondering whether you should encourage your 13-yr-old Harry Potter fan to try this book, the answer is no. They will neither like nor understand it. A mature older teen will connect with some of the teen angst in the story but might be put off by the political machinations of the plot. Basically this is a book for grown-ups. Just like Rowling said. I hope she writes another one soon.

(Book 32, 2012)


Ash said...

Guess its hard to digest even for adults..especially HP fans

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting - most reviews I've read were far less positive. I admire Rowling for taking a risk with a new genre, but I can't help wishing she'll spin more magic for younger readers. I love that term: tartan noir!

If you're looking for more books with a dark Scottish flavor, try Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. It's about a captured Scottish spy and her female pilot in occupied Nazi France. Although it's sold as YA, it feels more like adult historical fiction.

Have a Happy New Year!

Shelley said...

Like Sarah, I feel like I can't help admiring Rowling for taking a risk. Publishing has become such a "business" that when you see an author who rejects doing something that would automatically bring in more money--as a writer, that's something I admire. There's an authenticity there. That's what Rowling did. Harry Potter would admire her.

Meerabai said...

When JKR said this book is for adults she really meant it. Full of drugs, sex, child abuse and politics, this book can give nightmares to her usual Harry Potter fans.

But whats disappointing in this book is not the adult content, but the insufficient or late description of the characters which doesn't help a reader in visualizing the character properly. Also the story has too many sub plots of people trying to screw each other.

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