Saturday, November 03, 2012

What We're Reading: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

While explorations of the effects of a single life on a community are common in literature, it is the unexpected direction J.K. Rowling has taken with her first post-Harry Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy.

The book is set in the fictitious but easily recognizable (even for those living in the States) village of Pagford. Like most small towns, everyone in Pagford knows everyone else and their business – personal and professional. As a result, there are lots of secrets in Pagford, secrets that are carefully and fearfully guarded. There are also hot-button topics within the community, the type that in a small town require a yes or no response in conversation. Maybes and thoughtful answers are not entertained and are considered suspect. The issue for Pagford is a small, low-income housing development, referred to as “The Fields,” that was created five decades earlier in a transaction the Pagford folk still consider treacherous. The local parish council has been trying for years to re-district “The Fields” to place it under the control of the larger local city of Yarvil, but without success. When Barry Fairbrother, a long-time Pagford resident who grew up in “The Fields” and later became a successful and influential member of the community, drops dead suddenly and unexpectedly, members of the Parish Council see an opportunity to accomplish their desires unimpeded, while Barry’s friends and colleagues feel obligated to block the move in his memory. As the contentious wrangling for Barry’s seat on the council progresses prior to the election, posts begin to appear on the Pagford Council’s website. The posts are disturbing and disruptive because 1) they contain private and damaging information about individuals seeking the open council seat and 2) they appear under the name “The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.” Who is responsible for these postings and what are they hoping to gain? And how could they possibly know all the things they are posting?

Barry Fairbrother, the book’s focal point, dies within the first five pages. The remainder of the book is an exploration of the people who surrounded Barry in the small community of Pagford, and the effects his life and death have had on their own. While Barry may be the closest thing to a “good guy” in The Casual Vacancy, all of the characters are flawed and drawn in varied (and darkening) shades of gray.

Rowling uses The Casual Vacancy to explore more deeply--and with greater subtlety--issues she broached in the Harry Potter series: prejudice, personal responsibility (to ourselves and others), interpersonal relationships (particularly parent/child), and the divide between those that have and those that do not (and the hypocrisy that is often the direct result). Unlike the Potter books, The Casual Vacancy is a difficult read. While it lacks the joy and wonder of her earlier works, The Casual Vacancy allows Rowling the chance to write scenes that are uncomfortable (and often horrifying) in their reflection of and resemblance to our world. The result is an often disturbing and frustrating book that provides glimpses behind the characters’ facades, shows the reader their shortcomings and fears, and then challenges us to do better in our own lives. According to Rowling, we make a difference in what we do, how we do it, and in the ways we treat others in even the smallest interactions. The type of difference we make is up to us to determine.

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