Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling

When J.K. Rowling announced she would write another book, Harry Potter fans everywhere rejoiced.  The Casual Vacancy, however, offers a side of Rowling unseen in her best-selling series.  Vacancy has been, from the start, a novel decidedly written for adults.  The content, language, and even, to an extent, the writing style have been vamped up in age appropriateness. Nevertheless, the basics of what makes Rowling a strong writer remain.

Vacancy tells the story of a small British town in which a member of the Parish Council dies suddenly.  His position, now open, is classified by law as a "casual vacancy," hence the book title.  The town has been long embroiled in a conflict with its larger, more urban neighbor for decades.  The town itself, Pagford, has citizens on both sides of the battle.  Simply put, some Pagford dwellers want to renegotiate the city limits so that the Fields, a rough neighborhood populated by the poor and a significant number of substance abusers, would no longer be under the jurisdiction of the town, therefore denying them their quality schools or financial resources.  Others in Pagford want to reach out to the Fields and continue supporting its residents through better schooling and the funding of an addiction center.  The Parish Council has found itself split evenly on the issue for years.  The death of Barry Fairbrother, however, leaves an opening for real change to be made.

Rowling populated Pagford with plenty of vibrant characters.  I find character description and development to be one of Rowling's largest strengths as a writer.  Both in Vacancy and Harry Potter, her characters' personalities and struggles come across not only as believable, but relate-able.  Obviously, in the Potter books, the elements of fantasy add a barrier to complete connection.  In Pagford, however, Rowling portrays people dealing with real modern issues such as cyber bullying, marital discontent, and subtle racism. I think an aspect of Vacancy that may be difficult for some readers to accept is the inter-connectivity of everyone living in the town.  However, as someone who lives in a very small town similar to Pagford, I saw so much truth.  The wordless battles and incessant gossip are prevalent in any small community, particularly in one where every person knows the comings and goings of every other person.  Rawling captured it perfectly.  (On a side note, I am more than ready to move to a big city.)

It seems one common complaint about the book among reviews is its length and pace.  Some readers find it too slow or Rowling too long winded.  I do not disagree that her writing can have these qualities at times.  No reader of Harry Potter would claim Rowling as anything but verbose.  However, there is something about her style that makes me not mind.  I did not find Vacancy - or the Potter books, for that matter - too long or too slow.  Certainly, there are moments or plot lines I am less interested than others, but such is the natural rise and fall of a story.  Not everything can be climax, particularly in character driven narratives.  I enjoy the slower sections because those are the passages where you truly get to know a character.  Describing the seemingly monotonous process of a housewife preparing for a dinner party may seem droll, but the subtleties it shows in her personality and emotional state are extremely revealing.  I harbor no complaints about a slow pace or long book, so long as it is written well.

As mentioned, Vacancy is definitely meant for adult readers.  Rowling clearly has enjoyed her new found ability to handle heavier topics without concern for young eyes.  As an adult, I did not find the subject matter or language to be out of place, particularly when handling the human condition and accompanying heavy topics such as rape, drug abuse, and poverty.  I definitely would not recommend the book for any child or teenager interested simply because they are a fan of Harry Potter.  Vacancy does not claim to be Potter and Rowling has intentionally set herself far apart from her hallmark brand.  If she is out to prove that her writing can stand alone without wizards and magic propping her up, she has succeeded.  Her writing has grown up since the early Potter days, just as her readers have.  I look forward to seeing what she offers us in the future.

What other authors have tried to branch out of their trademark genre?  How successful can you really be at this?  Should famous authors try their hand at something new or stick to what made us know and love them in the first place?

Pages: 512
Date Finished: December 4, 2012

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