Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
If this book had been handed to me sans author credit, I would have guessed some Brit was doing a damned good Jonathan Franzen impression. The Causal Vacancy is about the sad lives of depressed people trying to pass the time and find small measures of happiness and meaning. Sound familiar readers of The Corrections? Freedom?
It’s 500 pages and I read it really fast. As we all know, Rowling is a great storyteller. I was quickly sucked in and the little town of Pagford felt as real and knowable as the little Seattle neighborhood that I grew up in. On the surface, the story is about the power brokers in town who are split on what to do about the troubled public housing and addiction clinic (known as The Fields) on the outskirts of town.When the councilmember leading the charge to continue to support “The Fields” dies, it sets up an election for his seat and ignites a public debate as this contentious vote is coming to a head.
But deep down it’s about an amoral man who beats his wife and children without qualm, it’s about a teenage boy who daily torments girls in school without conscience. It’s about parents who spend their time debating the responsibilities of a town toward the poor while ignoring the needs of their own kids. Wives hate their husbands, children hate their parents and no one seems to actually care for their neighbor let alone the Wheedon family who arise as emblems of the vote. Tragic, sometimes sympathetic and often sickening, this drug-addled family from The Fields is the example used by both sides to influence the vote.
The Harry Potter books also showcased power struggles and cruelty to children and spouses and the abuse of the poor. But in the midst of great evil and petty meanness, you found parents who died for their son, parents tortured into insanity rather than give in to tyranny, and parents who wept over their child’s body on the battlefield. This latest book is depressing, has no hope, is filled with unlikeable people, and gives chapter after chapter to darkness and hate.
Yes, it’s well written and makes its point very well. But it leaves you hollow and sad and feeling like all is lost in the world if this is how people treat one another. I don’t think I live in a fantasy, but I know that I live in a world closer to Harry Potter than to Pagford, England. In my life people have been unbearably kind to me. From my parents to teachers to friends and even to strangers, for the most part I’ve been shown more kindness than I deserved. I’m sorry Rowling couldn’t have added a little of that spice to this blend.