[This post has no spoilers, but the same can't be said for the comments section!]
About a week ago I finally finished up The Casual Vacancy. I had heard a fair amount of negative comments about it, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading it. Regardless, I’m glad I read it, and I think it served its purpose.
Did I enjoy it? Maybe not.
But I don’t think all books need to be enjoyed. This is a perfect example of that. I didn’t find the story particularly enthralling, but I did learn a lot about what I like and don’t like (always important as a writer), as well as characterization, realism, and heroes.
So even though I didn’t particularly like it, it taught me a lot about writing.
I don’t think anyone could argue that JKR is a bad writer, so it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that her prose was one of my favorite things about this book. The phrasing of her sentences and the words she chose painted a vibrant picture. This is what you need to point to if someone tells you writing isn’t an art or a science (I believe it’s both, by the way) because you can tell she took the time to place each word with care in order to give us a strong overall feeling for the novel.
With that being said, there were some things I didn’t enjoy. Some of the words she chose seemed a bit pretentious, especially given who some of the characters were (uneducated, superficial, etc.). Her extensive parentheses and overuse of semi-colons were a little grating, as well. But nothing worth putting the book down over.
The thing that stood out to me the most in The Casual Vacancy was the characterization. There’s a huge list of players in this book, and I had hardly any trouble keeping track of them. Why? Because the characters Rowling creates are so unique and memorable that she doesn’t need to blatantly remind you of who they are.
Her characterization was subtle. It was the way in which their section was written (this being an omniscient POV), the tics they had, their dialect, their personality. Nobody was a repeat of another, and each had a role to play. So many authors give you a rough sketch of a character. You know who they are on the outside, but you don’t know their soul. With the characters in this book, I felt that I could write a three page essay on each one, psychoanalyzing their personalities and actions. It’s the way in which she showed us the character, the things she didn’t say, that ended up being the brightest colors on the canvas.
Rowling said there are only two characters she would call heroes in this book – Barry Fairbrother and Krystal Weedon. This is ironic, and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know why.
Despite that, I would agree for the most part. I ended up not liking Krystal’s character after all, but that doesn’t necessarily make her un-heroic. Given the setting and plot of the story, it’s interesting to look at what makes a hero in a book like this. They’re not the ones that take up sword and shield and attack a dragon. Their heroism is more subtle, more internal – especially in Krystal’s case. I think that’s important to be aware of as a writer. Not everything our characters do have to be big and bold and life-and-death. Sometimes it’s the things they don’t do that are more important.
The Best and the Worst
There were plenty of things I didn’t like about the book, besides the writing. This felt like a book without very much plot. Most of it was a setup for what occurred in the last 200 pages. That’s fine and dandy, but if it was anyone other than JKR (with a few exceptions, of course), I think the the author would’ve been forced to change it in order to streamline the story a little bit.
I’m not a fan of the omniscient POV, though I do see why it was necessary for a book like this. It allowed us to drop in on any character at any time, which was helpful in understanding the personality and role of each person. Speaking of which, I often found the realism a little unsettling. It wasn’t a bad thing, per se. Perhaps it was just a neutral thing. It’s amazing to look at these characters and know that each one of them actually does exist in our world. The problem with this realism is, however, that it was very hard to like any of the characters.
I thought the best character was Sukhvinder. I think that, above everything, she was the person that was the most kind, despite having every reason not to be. I felt closest to her character because it was easy to see why she did the things she did. I have had friends in similar situations and know, through my relationship with them, how difficult it is to live a life that you feel is not worth living. In the end, however, I would say she came out on top, and above everyone else. This was probably the one thing that saved the book for me, and I’m glad that it happened.
Oddly enough, the character that I related to the most was Fats. I’m not sure why this is (and you’re not allowed to dissect that answer and tell me!! :P ) I appreciated his self-awareness and need to be authentic. I often feel this way about myself, and although I don’t take it to the level that he did, I enjoyed analyzing his character as a way to learn more about myself.
This is quite the philosophical book if you let it be. While I doubt I’ll give it a second read, I’m glad I powered through and read it at least once, despite the generally unfavorable reviews I had been hearing about.
Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If not, is it on your to-read list? If so, what did you think of it?
P.S. It looks like the BBC is going to be turning this into a mini-series. I think it’ll do well in this format, and it’ll be interesting to see these characters comes to life. What do you think?