book response: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

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If Holden Caufield's soul was divided into seven horcruxes, each part bringing with it one aspect of his character, and put into new characters and set it in the English country side instead of New York City, one might discover Rowling's new world in The Casual Vacancy. What took J.D. Salinger to describe in The Catcher in the Rye, Rowling does in The Casual Vacancy, but across more characters and age groups. I am not saying that Rowling's work is inferior at all, but she can plumb the depths of the human soul with all it's earnestness, hypocrisy, pain, vengefulness, passions high and low, like Salinger. However, Rowling uses a dozen major characters, almost all well developed and tangible, instead of two. Rowling does develop the story around one character who dies at the beginning of the story, yet had provided a foil for so many citizens in his town.

This story passed my nap test. Every Saturday afternoon, I sit in the car while one of my children volunteers, and I use the time to read, and usually nap. But I didn't with this book. It's not just because of her good writing, but also because there are so many characters, whose names are hard to keep track of. In fact, I made sure I finished it over the weekend, so I wouldn't forget who was who, who was fornicating with who, who was robbing who, who was beating who, who was doing drugs with who, and who composed the various love triangles. I am not diminishing how well Rowling incarnates her characters, the ability I really appreciated in the Harry Potter series, but I almost needed a cheat sheet at the back of the book to keep track of them all.

Kids are great at seeing self-delusion in others, especially their parents. One boy reflects on his mother's complicity in accepting the abuse his father inflicts on the family. "He had always seen Ruth as separate, good and untainted. As a child, his parents had appeared to him as starkly as black and white, the one bad and frightening, the other good and kind. Yet as he had grown older, he kept coming up hard in his mind against Ruth's willing blindness, to her constant apologia for his father, to the unshakable allegiance to her false idol." p. 289 Unfortunately, in the book, as in real life, the kids who can be adept at observation are not adept at solutions.

There are bigger issues in the town of Pagford. In Mitt Romney's words there are the makers and the takers, and the makers are sick of the takers and want to hand the low-income housing neighborhood over to a larger, neighboring city. They are tired of having to pay to help these people who should help themselves. In the same way as the kids, they can see a problem but are not adept at compassion, because that involves cash and tolerance of difference, both of which the town councilors are feeling short. She portrays the convictions of the makers and their position without prejudice, but makes the case, using the lives of the makers as examples, that we can't know the depth of pain others walk around with, and which can drive some to more debilitating choices than others. In Pagford, at least, the makers are hypocrites.
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One of the Catcher in the Rye themes I always liked was the hypocrisy of the adolescent in search of authenticity. She writes like a mother of an adolescent when the guidance counselor wishes she could tell the kids, "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." p.88 Words every adult who works with adolescents or lives with them wishes they could get some kids to understand. But it's also Rowling's message to her adult readers.

In case you haven't heard, this is an adult book. Rowling has an ear for slang, which was fun in the Potter books, but outside of Hogwarts, in the English countryside, f-bombs fall like dandelion seeds across every page. Not only are people using the word, they are doing it, teens and adults, and not behind closed doors either, Rowling brings us right into the bedroom, or behind the bushes, wherever people are doing it, and giving us a play by play. It was awkward for me. It was a little forced, as if Rowling could finally put in the scenes she knew were happening in Hogwarts over seven books, but had to wait for her first single adult book to try them out, all of them.

Nevertheless, she is an excellent writer. She spins a good tale. She has a moral to her tale. It's influenced by her own experience as a taker for a time, a single mother in need of assistance. Her NPR interview is enlightening. It's too bad the some of the makers have no time to read this and think about why to live compassionately with the poor. However, not even Jesus Christ can get through to them. Now that she's a maker, I'm glad she hasn't forgotten her past, nor her common humanity. If your kids are only in the snogging stage, do not get this for them for the holidays. But if you are an adult, this book may be worth your time.

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