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Bookends: A Look at Life in the Mundane World February 6, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A Look at Life in the Mundane World

By Dan Davidson

October 24, 2012,      Star, Oct 26/12Rowling - Vacancy

– 940 words –

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown and Co.

501 pages


I read this book over about a four-day span. I might not have bought it, but someone gave me a Christmas gift certificate to our local bookstore, and I had not used it yet, so I made myself a present of the book.

I found it quite compelling. There are some very nasty muggles in this novel and several families that make the Dursleys look functional. Dawson was in the midst of municipal elections, so it seemed a perfect time to read a book in which filling a vacancy on a parish council is the maguffin which sets off the various events in the story. There are a lot of flawed people in this novel, and most of them don’t overcome their flaws, but one or two do, in rather surprising ways.

Okay, that’s pretty much got all the obligatory references to the Harry Potter novels out of the way, though I must admit that these thoughts really did run through my head while I was reading about the goings on in Pagford.

Local politics are a bit of a different game in England. The title comes straight out of the handbook for local council administration. A casual vacancy is declared when a seat is vacated by failure to attend, resignation, or death. This could trigger either an appointment or a by-election.

When Barry Fairbrother, who is probably the nicest person in the book (note the name), collapses with an aneurysm in the parking lot at the local golf club where he and his wife have gone to have an anniversary dinner, the game is afoot immediately. This happens on the third page of the novel, so Rowling wastes no time getting things underway.

Unlike her other work there is no straightforward narrative following the life of one individual. She uses multiple viewpoints to follow the affairs of the Mollison, Price, Weedon, Wall and Jawanda families, as well as the dysfunctional couple of Gavin Hughes and Kay Bawden. There are over 30 characters to keep track of, and one London paper published a reader’s guide (now available on Wikipedia) to assist people.

A good portion of the time is spent in the minds of the young people from these families. Indeed, it is safe to say that this is a very internal story in which not a lot happens compared to the amount of space given to people’s thoughts and reactions about events.

The big issue facing the parish council is what to do about the adjacent cluster of low rent homes called the Fields. Pagford, represented by most of the families in the book, is stolidly middle class – blue to white collar along with some professional people. The Fields, which many Pagfordians feel ought to be an extension of the nearby city of Yarvil, is composed mostly of people on social assistance.

Howard Mollison, chair of the local council, wants his son, Miles, to fill Barry’s seat and thus control the local issue, as well as indirectly shutting down a local drug rehabilitation clinic. When various contenders for the seat pop up, this creates the need for an election.

The messy family dynamics create a desire by a number of the children of potential candidates to attempt to sabotage their parents’ chances by posting damaging material on the parish website under the name The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.

That’s not only cybercrime going on. Fats, the adopted son of the local deputy headmaster, is guilty if bullying and cyber bullying one of the Jawanda girls.

There are issues of truancy, teen sex and lots of other un-Potter like behavior in this novel. The lines between good and evil are nowhere near so clearly drawn as in Rowling’s fantasy work. Some of the kids are quite bent, as are a number of the adults.

The prize, for those looking to complain about language, will be the Weedon family, whose use of the all-purpose f-word for all parts of speech is epic. The Weedons live in the Fields, where Krystal, who is no pillar of virtue, is trying to raise her little brother in spite of the habits of her drug addicted mother, Terri. Notwithstanding her loose ways, there is something tragically heroic about Krystal, and trying to lift her out of the morass of her life had been one of Barry Fairbrother’s pet projects.

Barry elevated himself from the Fields to Pagford by dint of hard work and some good fortune, and he believed in giving others that chance. Those who were his friends want that work to carry on. The other families don’t.

The book is divided into seven parts, the first of which moves us through the various reactions of Barry’s death by most of the families in the cast. Then we move into the machinations related to the election and the interplay amongst the various factions, and things just get messier and messier.

This is decidedly not a children’s book. It is not uplifting and there are no clear-cut victories of good over evil, though there are clear examples of both kinds of behavior in the story. Confusingly, they often come from the same people. The real world is somewhat grey in moral tone, and Rowling has captured that. It is a thoughtful book dealing with issues of class struggle, family violence, infidelity, politics, drug use, promiscuity and rape.

As I said at the beginning, I found it compelling even when it was telling me a story that was often depressing.




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