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Monday, July 28, 2014

J.K. Rowling Has Left Harry Behind Book Review

 I believe I would be hard pressed to find a person who has never heard of the young wizard Harry Potter.  I know of people who have not seen the movies or read the books, but they at least have heard of Harry Potter and his creator J.K. Rowling.

Her Potter books are available in English, Welsh, Ancient Greek, Irish and Latin (Latin? Who reads contemporary literature in Latin?  I am amazed.)  In addition, Rowling wrote The Tales of Beedle the Bard and Quidditch Through the Ages as accompaniment pieces to the Potter series.

In 2012, Rowling wrote her first novel written specifically for adults, The Casual Vacancy. Many adults read the entire Potter series, and as Harry aged so did the story line. The last two books dealt with more of the adult wizards in Harry's life (along with a few Muggles) and the plot line became progressively dark and serious. I would not recommend children read the last two books unless they were very advanced readers.  In fact, I found The Deathly Hallows so dark and harrowing at times that I needed to set the book aside for a bit before continuing.  

My husband actually chose The Casual Vacancy for me to read during a recent library visit.  We both read the Potter series, and he knew of my penchant for novels set in the English countryside.  The book is not one you can pick up and read casually; I would not classify the 503 pages as a "beach read".  For me, reading this book took a certain amount of dedication on my part.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel set in "Pagford", a small, picturesque English
village, complete with quaint market square and ancient Abbey.  "Pagford" is located a few hours from London, and although the village has a pretty facade, the inhabitants are anything but.  It's a small town ruled by a small parish council with big political aspirations.

The first character we meet, and really the main protagonist, is Barry Fairbrother, and he is dead by page 5.  His death leaves an open seat on the parish council, and no sooner is the body pronounced "dead" than the infighting and jockeying for the "casual vacancy" begins.  Rowling explains the vacancy:  
"A casual vacancy is deemed to have occurred: (a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or (b) when his notice of resignation is received; or (c) on the day of his death"
Almost everyone in the village was fond of Barry, but no one could foresee the hotbed of nasty activity to come.  He and his wife Mary had what looked like a happy marriage, but you never really know what goes on behind closed doors.  The inhabitants of the village are either at war with their family or neighbors, hiding a pathological behavior, experiencing teen-age angst and/or lust, or just struggling to meet their everyday needs in a depressed economy.

The council members themselves are a very diverse group with strong opinions that (surprise) conflict with the self-proclaimed leader.  They, along with their offspring, are a jumbled mass of insecurities, fears and self-hatred covered with a thin veneer of respectability.  The only characters even remotely true to themselves are the assorted and dysfunctional Wheedon family members, and their truth is seriously depressing.  If you thought abject poverty, addiction and violence are not to be found in the English countryside, think again. I wish there had been some positive outcome for at least one of those characters.

"The Casual Vacancy" paints a very dark and depressing picture that just drags on for what seems like actual weeks and months.  I found it difficult to find a character I actually liked.  (Those people were probably minding their own business, working on their relationships, and enjoying small town life.)  I absolutely felt sympathy, anger, and sadness but there is no happiness to be found in this novel.

I found myself really longing for the ending, and yet I could not stop reading until I knew how all was resolved.  The novel followed the same path some of the PBS mysteries follow: a slow and winding unrolling of the events involving people with extremely convoluted lives, brought to a rapid end 15 minutes before the end of the program.  

Rowling took her time getting there, then ended the tale wrapped up in tragedy and more death.  The ending was not particularly surprising, but it was very sad.  I would have appreciated a bit more "story" about the light at the end of the tunnel for the characters, along with a ray of hope for them.  

I found the ending unsatisfying, given the volume of characterization and detail that came before.  Although Rowling hit all the dark and despairing areas of the characters' souls, she for the most part neglected to find the faint spark of light that was hidden in some dark corner.  

Rowling certainly does have a knack for showing people at their worst, but even the house elves had some brightness in their strange little lives.  I read online that this novel will be turned into a BBC drama.  Maybe the drama will be better than the book.