Sunday 28 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy - my two-cents

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little Brown: 2012). Pagford Parish Council is locked in bitter in-fighting as it tries to jettison the less desirable parts of the village. An unexpected death opens a seat which could make the difference. The ensuing debate provides a backdrop for profound and often tragic changes to the lives of a handful of protagonists.

Time to bend the knees and jump on a bandwagon. Everyone else has done it, so why not GBR? Why not read The Casual Vacancy? Why not tell you what I think about it?

Because you’ve probably had your fill of people telling you what they think about it, that’s why. It’s probably the biggest book event of the year, and the biggest since the last Harry Potter came out. Love or hate her, Rowling is doing something right.

So I’ll keep it short. If you don’t want to, you don’t need to read beyond the next paragraph. For what it’s worth, here’s the GBR take.

This is a good book.

For those of you still with us, I might as well give you a bit more detail.

I was ready to plough through 500-odd pages of mediocrity. That’s what most of the early reviews set me up for. Something above average, that would have probably been published with or without Rowling’s clout, but not something that’s going to go down in literary history on it’s own merit. The reality, though, was a notch or three above that.

Its strength is (quelle surprise) the plotting. Strip all the blockbuster sales, all the hero worshipping, and all the circus away from Rowling, and you’re still left with an unnaturally good story-teller. Her characters are so tightly drawn, their motivations so subtly soaked into the narrative, the flow of the story so naturally constructed, that you can’t help but get sucked in. Any dubiousness I had when I opened the first page was gone by the time I got to the fiftieth.

I was immersed, willingly or not, in the world Rowling created. I wasn’t constantly looking for the next twist, or skipping ahead to the dialogue - I found myself feeling the plot unfold quite patiently, simply content to be a spectator on a detailed but easily consumed little universe.

There was a slight jarring I felt throughout the book though. It came in the cartoonish nature of some of the main characters. Large swathes of The Casual Vacancy are so supremely authentic that it is a bit of a jolt when the larger than life Howard breezes through his chocolate box delicatessen, or when gossipy Maureen turns up to a party in a shorter than short skirt.

It could be on purpose. It could be these caricatures are inserted to make the darker parts of the novel stand out in greater relief. It could be Rowling is trying to make a point about the real life that lurks underneath the faces we put on for the rest of the world. In fact I’m sure that’s it, I'm sure it's all a device. But nevertheless, I still found it a little inconsistent. This switching from gritty realism to CBBC soap opera didn’t quite work for me.

That is nit picking though. How can I be anything other than positive about a book that absorbed me so much. I honestly looked forward to picking this book up and flicking through a few pages. I was genuinely sad to turn the last page and say goodbye to Pagford. I believed in the world Rowling created, and was absorbed by the goings on in it. So what if every now and then I felt awkward at the use of a few trite stereotypes.


Anything less than 9 GBR, and I’d suspect myself of marking her down just for being famous. Anything more and I’d have to slap myself in the face for being a push over.

We're on a run of good scores at the moment. Next week, I go back to the Booker Prize shortlist to try another one of them out. Populist? Moi? Non!


Kiara Jayne Ruggiero said...

Great review! I'd been a bit hesitant to read her new book out of fear that I'd be disappointed (she has a lot to live up to!) but I think I'll defs go ahead and read it now :D

Love your blog, bought two other books based on your recommendations! The Yellow Birds and Before I Go To Sleep :) I'd found your blog one sleepy sunday morning and read through hundreds of your book reviews!

If I could make one book suggestion for you to read it would definitely be "The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared" by Jonas Jonasson. Just finished that book and it was honestly one of the best books I've read this year!

Keep up the good work! :)


Gav Collins said...

Thanks Kiara - so kind of you to say. I hope The Casual Vacancy lives up to my billing now!

I've Amazon one clicked the Jonasson book you recommend. It's gone straight to the top of the pile.

Keep reading, and do tell anyone that'll listen about GBR!