I’ve decided to blog my reactions to The Casual Vacancy.
Not because I think they are particularly meaningful to anyone but me, but because I think I might want to look back on them later for various reasons. This will not be any sort of literary approach. I don’t do literary criticism. This is just how a Texas writer who has a deep passion for all things English, whose dream is to spend time living in an English village, and who owes some of her most wonderful reading experiences to JK Rowling views her first book post-Hogwarts.
If you think it’s interesting or want to join in, please let me know; please do. Without some sort of feedback I may slip into not writing about it and I know I’ll regret that later. I do ask that you not spoil me on things that haven’t happened in the section I’m discussing. I’m going to employ a “more” type command here in wordpress that will allow me to put all my own “spoilery” specifics behind a cut and label well so that you can click to read more, or stop and come back later if you haven’t begun your reading yet.
I ordered my copy from the UK so if some details seem different, please say so. It would be interesting to see how it was changed for the American reader.
First, the title. This much I think can be said without spoiling anything. The book begins with a definition of “casual vacancy”:
6.11 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…
Local Council Administration
Since all I knew before the book arrived was that it is some sort of murder set in an English village, I assume that the murder results in (is caused by a desire for?) a casual vacancy on the local council or governing body. Local politics.
Okay, and, we’re off!
In which I ramble a bit about my reactions to Part One (pages 3-50 in the UK edition)… This is where to bail out if you haven’t read it and/or don’t want to read farther. If so, see you next post when I will probably be talking about something else!
Still here? Okay, then!
Starting with the name Barry Fairbrother. We know Jo (you don’t mind if I call her Jo, do you? it’s shorter and easier than being formal) sometimes has fun with her name choices (Remus Lupin, anyone?) so I immediately wondered if Fairbrother will come to have significance.
I also wonder if there is any significance to “nineteen years” of marriage, as in that epilogue I really, really did not like, “nineteen years later…” Is she winking at her reader? Does she just like the number nineteen? Did she even notice she’d done it? I’d be surprised if she winked at the reader. She seems to want to remove this book completely from anything Potter. But again, I noticed the words “nineteen years” and wondered.
Ah, and look how Jo’s sense of detail turns to the ordinary world. Where before she was describing the fantastical more often than not, in this she is describing a middle-aged woman’s large breasts “as they rested on her forearms. Upwards pressure made them appear fuller and smoother than they were when they hung unsupported. The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed. She had been a great user of sunbeds when younger.” Little details, described in full detail.
Now I feel the need to reassure you: I read the entire fifty-ish pages of Part One before beginning to write this so can assure you that I won’t be describing every reaction at length, nor will I constantly be referring back to ATP (all things Potter). But at this point, on page eight, I am still very much adjusting to the fact that this is the same author who gave us a world of magic. That this ordinary even tawdry world is being treated in somewhat the same way as the magical world that whisked us all away into a universe of her creation…. or is it?
I am pondering that, to tell you the truth. She started Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer’s Philosopher’s Stone with an omniscient story teller’s point of view, and it was awhile before we truly met Harry and bonded, and finally had a main character to connect to. And the same is happening here. Will set that aside to think about and possibly come back to later. Hmm.
Here is how Part One is broken up. First, “Sunday,” and less than three pages dedicated to Barry Fairbrother’s realistic death. It appears to be an aneurism of some sort. If this were a more typical mystery novel, well, first of all let’s face it. Odds are Barry would be a young woman. Odds are even greater that our introduction to the world of the “victim” up front would be very empathetic to pull us in and make us care what happened to her. Our intro to Barry [rhymes with Harry! how many times did I type his name and read it without noticing, and does it matter, probably not] is more distant, and we are observers rather than participants.
Next, “Monday.” Ten brief chapters in which we see various people learn of Barry’s death, and see their reactions. We are kept fairly distant until we go into Andrew’s point of view–a teenaged boy. Jo does like that point of view, doesn’t she? My strongest reaction to a character besides Andrew is to Krystal Weedon. By the time we are in the school counselor’s office and Krystal comes in, I find myself more interested in Krystal than anyone else. I worry about her, care about her, and am glad I’m not in her point of view because I’m really rather afraid of what we may learn about her.
Even though I haven’t read a single review of this book, I’ve caught bits of reaction. I know that the reaction to the book is largely negative. I know that a lot of people are turned off by unlikeable characters and what I will again call a sometimes tawdry look at life in an English village. Not tawdry as in a Peyton Place potboiler, however. But so far I’m seeing a comparison between the two. There are layers in the village, and some are what people want to see, what they want to be seen, and then there are the layers that need to be hidden. Is the fact that this isn’t a potboiling page-turner because it’s English rather than American? Is it a difference in style that stems from differences in culture? Or is it Jo’s approach that keeps us more distant (so far)? I’m not sure yet.
I know that I’m not turned off by the subject matter, nor am I turned off by people who are sometimes unlikeable, and sometimes likeable but doing unlikeable things. I want to keep reading to find out what secrets are hidden. And I’m actually enjoying a lot of the details of English village life without a rose-coloured shade drawn across it. No, I’m not assuming that this is more “true” than Doc Martin, but I do think the realism is refreshing and interesting. I love Martha Grimes and her unrealistic view of village life. So far, I’m liking Jo’s more realistic approach, even if I’m not loving it.
But–and this is a big deal–I am still waiting for a central character to step forward and grab the story and make me care.
And that’s enough for me at this point. Next up, click here for the next section, Olden Days.
Let me know what you think. I’m sure I’ll add more in comments as it comes to me, or in response to your thoughts.