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Book Report: The Casual Vacancy

January 12, 2014

I used to be a voracious reader. And by “used to,” I refer to the period from age three, when I learned all of the words in my favorite Snow White picture book by sight, until some twenty years later, when I entered grad school while still working full time in a career-track job. I spend the subsequent decade working all the time, unable to absorb anything less vapid than television. Every year I vow to read more, but lately I’ve actually been doing something about it. That something is reading.

I have a particular fondness for young adult literature, because it can be quick and engaging without the language being dumbed down. I don’t know why adult quick reads have to read like they were also written quickly. The only novels I continued to read during my personal Dark Ages were the Harry Potter series, being the only writs longer than a short story or essay that I could commit to finishing. I’ve gotten 50 pages into a shamefully tall stack of abandoned books.

So when Amazon suggested I try J.K. Rowling’s first book for adult audiences, The Casual Vacancy, I decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did.

For a 500 page book, the plot is minimalist, detailing the quotidian microdrama of a tiny hamlet in England and the adjacent, slightly larger town.  There is no backdrop of historical significance, there is no cataclysm, there are no dragons. I normally have little patience for endless descriptions without a lot of action, but Rowling is something of a wizard in her own right when it comes to the subtle magic of arranging words on a page.

The basic premise is that a parish councilor in a small town has passed away suddenly, leaving behind his empty council seat and a town full of residents inexorably interconnected by family and school ties, as well as the sometimes very tangible impacts of local politics.

Rowling’s narrative and character development are meticulous. Much in the way we could all envision young Harry long before we laid eyes on Daniel Radcliffe, every one of the nearly two dozen pivotal characters in The Casual Vacancy is described in such detail that not only can you picture their faces, their style, their walks, but you can anticipate how they will react to the events that unfold around them. The plot is subtle, understated, but obviously well thought through, as the seemingly minor events that occur throughout the book are knit together perfectly in the end. As is often the case with her writing, I was forced to pause near the end to cry for a bit before finishing the final chapter. I only cry for the ones I feel I know.

Rowling knows people. She obviously studies them well and understands what makes them tick, and this allows her to develop her cast in a way few authors can imitate. None of her characters is purely good nor bad, protagonist nor antagonist. All are human – the good ones have failings and the bad ones, explanations. In her art, as in life, humans are messy, complicated creatures with complex motives and imperfect judgement. There is no Dumbledore, nor any Voldemort. If we could all see each other with such clarity and tenderness, this world would be a less aggressive place. 

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