Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Casual Vacancy

May 15, 2016

J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. Little, Brown, 2012.




My first reaction upon getting "into" this 502-page novel about one small town in England is awe. Awe. Wonder. Admiration at how much this writer knows about the inner workings of teenagers -- the beautiful, the popular, the jocks, the nerds, the abused, the cutters -- and how she rocks these young people in the ripples caused by the death of one man in one small pond. Pagford, hours from London, smaller and more conservative than neighbouring Yarvil, is dominated by the ruins of an ancient abbey and a fractious parish council. The death of Councillor Barry Fairbrother leaves "a casual vacancy" to be filled by an election of someone favouring one of the two camps -- the Mollison/Pagford complacents or the Fairbrother/Jawanda hopefuls. And the community is set atwitter by the hacked comments on the district website whispering, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, things the listeners in their hearts believe but would really rather not be forced to admit that they know.

Not to be a spoiler, but The Casual Vacancy is a sad and depressing story about culture failure, about conservative vs. social activist attitudes, punishers vs. empathizers, bullies vs. victims. This novel makes us think about: the needy and the compassionate. The finger-pointers and the mirror-avoiders. The relationship between powerlessness and passive aggression. The gaps between systems and the needs of people. The efficacy of monogamy and the nuclear family. The difficulty seeing and knowing motivations and intentions, authenticity and hypocrisy. How many people have to die before reconciliation is a possibility?

During one of the shudder-inducing scenes -- was it the dinner party from hell or the explosive council meeting? -- I realize that "this is why I choose not to be involved." Guiltily conflict-avoidant. And I am comforted by the memory of wisdom shared by an Elder in a Longhouse ceremony some years ago: "We are all here to help each other through." Words to live by, but not in Pagford. 

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