Friday, January 11, 2013

book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Hmm, I'm pleased that I didn't have to delete too many spam comments after my gigantic blogging hiatus. I get a lot more spam on my work e-mail, which supposedly has heavy-duty spam filters on it. I find it particularly hilarious that the most recent spam e-mails are encouraging me to buy a ready-made university degree (easy! discreet! printed on high quality paper!).

Anyway, rather than let the blog languish further or delete it entirely, I've decided to use it to put all my reviews--books, movies, etc.--in one convenient place. First up:

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Originally I gave this 3.5 stars, but after thinking about it some more, I've decided to upgrade it to 4, because I feel is so admirably complex and well-written. One of the real strengths of the novel, in particular, is the way that Rowling takes such time building each character so that we are not in the least surprised when one of them acts a certain way. By the end of the novel not a single person in the book acts out of character. Their actions are--with one exception--predictably selfish and disappointing.

I really enjoyed this--the characters are interesting and the weird petty machinations of the small village are fascinating. It's true there are very few completely sympathetic characters, but there are also only a couple who are really truly irredeemable (Simon, Shirley and Howard are unlikable from beginning of the book to the end) and more than a few who are just kind of pathetic, or are sometimes unpleasant but in a realistic, everyone-is-flawed, human and understandable way. We might not LIKE what the characters do, but we understand completely WHY they do it.

The book is fairly tragic but oddly enough, not exactly grim. Rowling includes enough low-key comic touches to keep it from becoming grindingly depressing. I thought her writing was really pretty good in this one; she's developed a good voice and a sharp style. There was one sentence that stuck out awkwardly in the first few pages of the book and then after that, the writing flowed smoothly.

However, I did think the book was a little bit too long. It needed trimming--for example, there was a bit of a lag in places where the tedious machinery of the village council was discussed in too much detail. But even so, I can't fault Rowling for the sprawling cast of characters, because I think she handles them well. And it does all come together at the end--though this was another place I thought the novel faltered slightly. The end was not unsatisfying but was a little bit too tidy, albeit in a gloomy way. [I'm being vague on purpose so as not to spoil it if you haven't read it.]

Overall, though, if you like big sprawling novels with sharp social commentary (and it is extremely sharp--you're not left wondering about Rowling's social views) and you don't mind reading about humans behaving abominably to each other, I do recommend The Casual Vacancy.

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