The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I initially felt turned off by this book as an attempt by Rowling to go in the completely opposite direction to Harry Potter by writing about the most banal lives and inserting obscene language and references that seemed over-the-top and unnecessary. I also found it boring to start and impossible to find even a single character with whom I felt sympathetic.

If anyone else but Rowling had written this book, I probably would’ve put it down 50 pages in or so. But I’m very glad I kept reading.

Though most of the characters aren’t sympathetic, I found them incredibly real and many times, unfortunately, very relatable, either as people I know or aspects of myself. Layer by layer, the characters’ motivations and inner lives are revealed making them, if not always sympathetic, more understandable as the book progressed.

And at its root, this is what the book is about. Examining your own secret inner life and being honest with yourself about your views, your prejudices, your choices to acknowledge, ignore, blame, or help those less fortunate than yourself. It’s about facades we wear and what it takes to knock them loose.

Yet it’s also about getting out of your own selfish head, once you’ve been honest with yourself, and realizing other people around you have just as many problems. If we only had back a real sense of community, many of those problems might not exist. Most people in this book, though, can’t get beyond themselves:

“He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own.”

Rowling did an excellent job describing elements of life. She perfectly summed up the pain I sometimes feel at watching my own children growing up so fast:

“How awful it was…remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.”

The book was dark and depressing in its examination of a middle-class town trying to keep up appearances at any cost, but there was hope at the end, the idea that some people can change. Not every character does, of course, and I felt Rowling’s challenge at the end, the question of whether or not you know yourself and if you have the courage to change the things you don’t like.

Well worth reading.

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