Culture Watch: J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and Larson's In the Garden of Beasts
THE CASUAL VACANCY
by J.K. Rowling, ©2012
Hardcover: 303 pp
J.K. Rowling’s brave leap into the world of adult fiction has hit the shelves with a bang, garnering some shocked gasps from people who expected something Harry Potterish and uplifting. If you’re going to read this novel, you need to toss such expectations out the window, and brace yourselves for some serious social commentary and true-to-life language of the kind that used to be called shocking. Considering the expletives we hear on daytime television these days, such language should no longer shock, but a steady diet of it can still be distressing, even if it is absolutely true to the way many people speak.
Distressing is exactly what Ms. Rowling wants. There is a long line of British novels that aim to raise social consciousness: Dickens springs to mind, as do the mysteries of writer Dorothy L. Sayers, whom Ms. Rowling has said she admires. Rowling’s standards could hardly be higher than those two, and her story comes close to being every bit as distressing and rewarding and inspiring as the books of her idols.
Like the characters created by Dickens or Sayers, the caste of Ms. Rowling’s novel lives within the rigid class framework of Britain’s social structure. It is the genius of all three writers — Dickens, Sayers, and now Rowling — to show us that every stratum of society contains people both moral and immoral.
Rowling has a delicious ability to delineate the pomposity and blinding greed of some members of the middle class, who are sublimely sure of their superiority over anyone they perceive to be below them in the social hierarchy. Other reviews have mentioned that those avatars of the grubby middle class must be first cousins to Harry Potter’s relatives, the Dursleys. If we go that route, we can see the roots of Dolores Umbridge, the acquisitive, smarmy and fortunately temporary head mistress of Hogwarts, in Rowling’s spot-on depiction of the upwardly mobile snobs in the village of Pagford.
However, this book is most emphatically not something you’d want to hand to a youngster who loves Harry Potter. Let them grow up and find it for themselves. Rowling has made the transition from writing for youngsters and adults, to writing something for grownups, period. Her skills have not lessened in transit. She has written something that we need to read, even though it can at times be grubby and painful. “Good” characters sometimes behave in unlovable ways; “bad” characters are sometimes redeemable, but gains that are made, both personal and communal gains, are modest. No one comes off without pain and/or guilt. Some grow with the experience; some do not.
There is no magic here beyond the kind one can sometimes glimpse in hopeless situations: the flash of vibrancy in a child coping with a brutal life, or the kindness of someone who sees that flash and tries to encourage it. The story is heartbreaking, but with a sliver of uplift and hope as characters learn from their experiences.
A word of caution: the first several chapters introduce multiple characters, and at times, it is hard to remember who is who (or maybe my constant flicking back of pages is just a tribute to my advancing age and retreating short-term memory). For what it’s worth, I found that jotting down a very abbreviated “cheat sheet” (on a tiny scrap of paper, which also served as bookmark) helped me to remember who was who or belonged to whom.
Oh, and for anyone who has ever raised a teenage boy, you may find eye-rolling recognition in the depiction of the horny male teenage brain. Spot-On, Ms. R.
IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror and An American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson, ©2011*
Broadway Paperbacks/Crown Publishing Group, div. Random House
Pages: 1 · 2
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