The Casual Vacancy – a new review

The Casual VacancyI really enjoyed this novel. I’ve only ever listened to Rowling’s Harry Potter books on audio, but I’ve been consistently impressed by her character development, attention to detail and evocative settings. This book has all of those things.

When Barry Fairbrother dies in a small English town, he leaves “a casual vacancy” in his seat on the local Pagford Parish Council. Through this position, we then meet dozens of his fellow Pagford residents and a few from neighboring Yarvil. Reading about them was like peeking into their diaries. Rowling leaves no stone unturned in searching for her characters’ underbellies, and in turn, the underbelly of the community they represent.

The criticism this novel has received, in fact, revolves in large part around the fact that these characters about whom she writes 500+ pages, are not entirely likable. While that’s true, it didn’t bother me in the least. I didn’t mind that they were petty, guilty, crazy, addicted, ineffectual, suspicious, lewd, sad people. I still liked going along on this journey.

“The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else.”

Rowling is definitely of the school that an author should never introduce a character or plot point that does not have some greater meaning. So in the last 1/3 of the book, I was a little annoyed at some “contrived” meetings of characters and situations. But, this is how she writes. She is making a point about the way in which lives are interconnected. I chose to suspend my disbelief and, in the end, was entirely satisfied with where she left each character.

Did I miss the Harry/Ron/Hermione heroics? Yes, a little bit. But I would argue that The Casual Vacancy does have its share of heroes, at least heroic moments. It’s just that they’re human. They’re small and subtle, tiny victories over our more base natures.

“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

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Also Read in September

Also read in September

It’s hard to believe that I only posted one book review on my blog in September. I guess life got in the way. I was reading though. Here’s a round-up of my September titles…

Playing with Matches

By Carolyn Wall, 3 stars

There were moments I loved this book, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. The story felt fractured and, while that might have been an intentional author choice, it prevented me from feeling close enough to the characters. I just couldn’t get why people were doing the things they did. I really loved the southern setting, the language, and Clea as a little girl, painfully drawn back again and again to her whore of mother. But once Clea grows up and returns to the scene, the book was disjointed. I got the metaphor of the approaching hurricane, but the storm itself was anticlimactic. For this style of book I much prefer Jayne Phillip’s Lark and Termite.

My heart feels like some rickety place. Like there’s nowhere safe to put my feet. It has something to do, I think, with the way my houses keep falling down.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

By J.K. Rowling, 4 stars

Finally finished listening to this one with my boys. Once again, I am so impressed by this series. I love how we each get something different out of these books. My oldest son (11) really gets the humor and some of the layers of interpretation. My youngest (7) just gets wrapped up in the action and drama. There’s nothing more rewarding than hearing, “I can’t wait to get back in the car to find out what happens next in the story.” I can’t add much more than has already been said by reviewers world-wide. I’m just glad to be on the bandwagon.

“Oh well… I’d just been thinking, if you had died, you’d have been welcome to share my toilet.”

One Amazing Thing

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, 3 stars

Easy, interesting read — almost a short story format as several people share one amazing story from their lives while trapped by an earthquake. I think the individual stories worked better than the book as a whole, which almost became trapped in its own format. I was especially intrigues by Mr. Pritchett’s childhood story which was such a contrast to the adult character as portrayed in the current-day narrative. While the book didn’t hold together well enough for me, I will watch this author for the future. She did make me ask myself  what story I would tell.

She had always been this way: interested-quite unnecessarily, some would say-in the secrets of strangers. When flying, she always chose a window seat so that when the plane took off or landed, she could look down on the tiny houses and imagine the lives of the people who inhabited them.”

Songs Without Words

By Ann Packer, 2 stars

GROAN! I should have given up on this book after 2 disks, but I had no other audio books in the car so I kept listening. Then, by the time i picked up my next book, I was half way in and felt the need to finish.
The three main characters in this book are all lost and faltering. Depression, suicide, despair kind of bad. That wouldn’t normally bother me in a book except that Packer worked through it at such a slow, plodding pace. I am a big Dive From Clausen’s Pier fan, so I’ll try her work again, but if this had been the first book by her I’d ever read, I’d stay far away. But here’s where the second star comes in…she writes people thoughtfully and compellingly. I like her characters. That’s why I couldn’t give up on the book. I needed to know. And, in fairness, I read this during a very sad time in my own life which may have tinted further my view of this book.

Sorry – no quotes – unless you want me to go into the multi-sentence description of picking up a telephone to check voicemail…