Friday, May 10, 2013

The Casual Vacancy

Just finished reading this for the BPYC book club, and as the meeting is not for a few weeks, I thought I better get down my first impressions before they fade.

The ending is grim. In fact, so is the whole book. Three funerals, severely dysfunctional families, mental illness, addiction, spousal abuse, infidelity, prostitution, child abuse, self-mutilation.  There are 34 characters in all, some with more redeeming qualities than others, but all of them seem to be unaware, self-centered or just plain mean. Barry seems goodhearted and driven to make the world a better place, but he dies in the first few paragraphs of the book.

The hole Barry leaves behind becomes the frame for the story. The 'casual vacancy' is the empty seat on the local council that must now be filled, with all the petty intrigue that entails. The absence of this man becomes a way of seeing into the hearts he leaves behind. The local GP (Parminder) who secretly loved her co-counsellor, the disadvantaged student (Krystal) who he tried to save. Their lives are thrown off-balance by his sudden death, and that begins a domino effect. The local GP makes an error in judgement that leads to the death of a patient (who happens to be the grandmother of the student); the student makes another error of judgement that leads to the death of her baby brother; and then the loss of Barry, her grandmother and baby brother culminate with Krystal taking her own life.

I found the adolescent characters to be more sympathetically drawn than the adults. The harm they cause is malicious. But they are reacting to circumstances and conditions the adults in their lives created. Their parents' choices are thrust on them and this somehow absolves their actions from full accountability.  The reader is quicker to forgive their sins (well, at least this reader).

The story's unlikely hero is Sukhvinder. Daughter of the GP, student of Barry's, friend to Krystal. Sukhvinder suffers dyslexia, bullying at school, the scorn of her mother, and cruelly punishes herself by self-cutting. In the end, she tries to rescue the boy and his sister, but fails. But in this cast of 34, she is the one who best succeeds in reversing a downward spiral.

In some ways I wish I didn't know the writer was JK Rowling, as I couldn't help but look for connections with Harry Potter. But then, I'm not sure I would have read it, otherwise.

The first week it was available, the book was already on the Bestseller lists. Interestingly, even the publishers were forbidden to read The Casual Vacancy before it was released, if you can believe the hype.

Rowling is pronounced 'rolling,' according to this interview. In it, she says her novel is 'Trollopee."  I'm not sure whether I agree, as I haven't read either Anthony or Joanne yet.... must get around to it someday.

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