Completed: The Casual Vacancy

I didn’t mean to take a week off here (I’ve been trying to be well behaved and post about once a week), but I kept holding out hope that I would finish my Classics Spin title on time, or close to the deadline of the first of the month. So….that didn’t happen (I’m almost done though, maybe next week’s post?) However, I have FINALLY finished writing up posts about all my summer reading! That is a weight off my shoulders. I’m kindda bummed that I haven’t finished anything for R.I.P. yet, but the aforementioned Classics Spin title will count as my first, and once I’m done here I think I shall sign up for next weekend’s readathon and knock out another. Actually, it never works for my schedule to even attempt the full 24-hours so maybe I’ll make Friday-through-Sunday as semi-readathon days. We’ll see… Anyways, on to my latest “catch-up” post.

The Casua lVaccancyThe Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
2012, Britain

A few months back (illustrating how long it’s taken me to write this up), I had occasion to, for work, drive through a very ritzy part of NE Ohio. At first I had thought it was a rural community, but then I realized the lawns were too perfectly manicured, the fences too precise, and any horse that might be seen served as lawn ornament. Everything screamed “money.” The township sign confirmed my assessment. The next day, a different project, different location–a declining old manufacturing town. Windows broken out or boarded up, cramped city lots facing on littered, crumbling concrete walks, civic buildings past their “best-by” dates. It was a world apart. How, I thought, could those who knew the one life ever begin to understand the other? Their baselines are so far apart.

They returned to the dining room to find an animated conversation in progress between Kay and Miles, while Gavin sat in silence.
“…offload responsibility for them, which seems to me to be a pretty self-centered and self-satisfied–”
“Well, I think it’s interesting that you use the word ‘responsibility,'” said Miles, “because I think that goes to the very heart of the problem, doesn’t it? The question is, where exactly do we draw the line?”
“Beyond the Fields, apparently.” Kay laughed, with condescension. “You want to draw a line neatly between the home-owning middle classes and the lower–”
“Pagford’s full of working-class people, Kay; the difference is, most of them work. D’you know what proportion of the Fields lives off benefits? Responsibility, you say: what happened to personal responsibility? We’ve had them through the local school for years: kids who haven’t got a single worker in the family; the concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of non-workers, and we’re expected to subsidize them–”
“So your solution is to shunt off the problem onto Yarvil,” said Kay, “not to engage with any of the underlying–”
“Mississippi mud pie?” called Samantha. (223-224)

I decided then that I wanted a social issue read, so I picked up The Casual Vacancy. The catalyst of Rowling’s first non-Potter novel is a death (first chapter, I’m not spoiling anything here), a death of a man who had bridged such a divide. The story then follows the lives of those affected by his death, and it is clear–these people don’t understand each other. Their experiences are too far apart. This is the crux of the problems in The Casual Vacancy: while on the surface the challenge is the council opening created by Barry Fairbrother’s death, dig deeper and we see that the residents of Pagford, to say nothing of the Fields, don’t understand each other and can only think of their own ugly little lives.

A month or so after I finished The Casual Vacancy, I happened to reread the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), and it became even more starkly clear how ugly most of the residents of Pagford really are. Placing the two stories side-by-side, I find that Rowling’s novel helps me place “who is my neighbor?” in a 21st century context, illuminating for me a very familiar parable. Think too much about it and I begin to squirm. I wonder if those who criticize The Casual Vacancy as “socialist propaganda” are actually just unwilling (or unable) to admit their own failings towards their neighbors.

I am surprised a bit, actually, at how easily I can write about this novel months after having read it. It would seem that Rowling has a knack for writing memorable characters and scenes. I can still recall many pieces of the novel well–and this despite the fact that I found it slow to start and nearly declared it a “DNF” at one point. This one will stick with me. And I think that’s a good thing.

4 thoughts on “Completed: The Casual Vacancy

  1. I found the writing very fluid and now that I am reading The Cuckoo’s Calling I can confirm it is one of Rowling’s best qualities as a writer. She lets you enjoy the reading that, although brilliant, does not compromise your attention so you end up having read 30 pages without noticing.

    I loved the social criticism of the novel and it felt very realistic. It almost felt like a goodbye love letter to her past.

    1. I’d forgotten you read The Casual Vacancy. I guess I didn’t read your post too closely so as to avoid spoilers!

      I agree, the social crit aspects seemed very realistic. Rowling is obviously (I think even without knowing her history) familiar with both sides of the poor/rich divide, and it makes for a truer portrayal of situations her readers might not themselves really understand.

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