Thursday, March 21, 2013

Rowling is still Rowling in The Casual Vacancy

I have finally gotten around to reading J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. I am only about 100 pages in so far so I'm in no position to make any sweeping conclusions about it but I will say this: Rowling is still a wonderful writer.

Alright, maybe that's a sweeping conclusion.

But, whatever one might think about this down-and-dirty adult novel, you have to admit that J.K. Rowling writes beautiful sentences, crafts memorable descriptions and creates effective and affecting characters.

With that being said, I have two very early comments to make about this book and, sorry Joanne, but both involve me comparing The Casual Vacancy to your Harry Potter books. I can't help it. I'm a HP fan and can't help but to hear the echoes of your earlier works in this latest one.

First, at the beginning of Chapter Monday X of TCV, Rowling writes the following in the wake of Barry Fairbrother's death and its announcement on the Parish Council's website: "little knots of pedestrians kept congregating on the narrow pavements to check, in shocked tones, the exactness of their information."

Doesn't that remind you, just a little, of Rowling's descriptions of the way the wizarding world reacted to Voldemort's disappearance at the start of the Harry Potter series?

Early in The Philosopher's Stone, she wrote: "there seemed to be a lot of strangely dressed people about. People in cloaks...They were whispering excitedly together." And later, Professor McGonagall complains that, in the aftermath of Voldemort's historic first encounter with Harry Potter, "People are being downright careless, out on the streets in broad daylight, not even dressed in Muggle clothes, swapping rumours."

Not the same words, sure, but the exact same effect, don't you think? For me, it's kind of neat to see this kind of pattern in Rowling's thinking and writing.

So far, my favourite character in TCV is Krystal Weedon, the misery-hardened teen who feels her chance of escape has disappeared with Mr. Fairbrother's death. As I said, I'm only about 100 pages into this book and already I've developed a deep-seated empathy for this character.

Rowling is at her evocative best in chapter Wednesday I, the first that really takes up Krystal's point of view. And what a heart-rending chapter it is, as Rowling subtly, carefully allows us to see how devastating her coach and teacher's death is to this seemingly callous, hardened young woman.

As I read it, I can't help but thinking of Snape when he was young, a lost, lonely boy living a loveless life, with no real hope of something better.

It is a credit to Rowling that she is able to create such empathy for these apparently distasteful characters, that she can capture so effectively the devastating impact of poverty and abandonment on a young life. If Weedon (and what a great name that is for this character) is brutal and nasty and offensive, it is life that has made her that way. But that doesn't mean that she's not human, that she doesn't at some level of her soul recognise what she is and what she has become and hope for something better.

I'm quite enjoying The Casual Vacancy. I'll probably write more on it as I work my way through it.