I really love drinking tea, even on hot summer days. I don’t like iced tea, or iced coffee, but a hot cup of tea, just cooled to take the sting out, is a delicious treat any time of the year. It’s Monday morning, and I’m writing now because I had an impromptu beach day yesterday, so had no time to work on a blog post.
My book group met on Saturday to discuss J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy. This novel is set in the fictional idyllic English village of Pagford, and the larger town nearby, Yarvil, which is considered poorer and rougher than the posh, wealthy village. When Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm while heading into a restaurant for his anniversary dinner, the conflict between town and village heats up as the fight over the Fields, an outlying subdivision where the people lowest on the social hierarchy reside, intensifies. Due to some questionable past land development, no one is quite sure who is responsible for the residents of the Fields, or the addiction clinic that is there to serve those who need it. Barry, who came from the Fields, was the strongest supporter and made the loudest and most convincing arguments for keeping the Fields within the jurisdiction of Pagford, but Pagford is eager to take the opportunity of his death to hand over the responsibility to Yarvil and close the current Bellchapel Addiction Centre location. The central dilemma created by Barry’s sudden and unexpected death is how to fill the “casual vacancy” on the Parish Council, and who might best take on this role. Throughout the novel, we meet various families in the village: successful doctors Parminder and Vikram Jawanda and their three children; Tessa and Colin Wall and their son; Miles and Samantha Mollison and their children; Gavin Hughes, his girlfriend Kay Bawden and her beautiful teenaged daughter Gaia; Howard Mollison, head of the Parish Council, and his doting wife, Shirley. These and other village families clash with the families from the Fields, particularly the Weedons, heroin addict mother Terri, her headstrong teenaged daughter Krystal, who goes to school with the other Pagford kids, and Krystal’s younger brother Robbie. Krystal was the focus of Barry’s campaign to keep the Fields a part of Pagford, making her and her family even more of a target of hatred within the groups in the village. The families in Pagford also each have their own secrets, which they would prefer to keep hidden. But one by one, these secrets are made public in a most unlikely way. The villagers attempt to deal with their own issues, made more complicated by the interconnectedness of the various family members, while also filling the casual vacancy and trying to make the right, or in some cases, the most advantageous, decision regarding the Fields and the Bellchapel Clinic. Oh boy, was this book a source of heated debate! Only one member of the group had read this book before, so we were mostly all coming to it with fresh eyes. Several members said that they did not like it, that they struggled with this book. Upon further discussion, it turned out that they did not like the characters, that they thought all of them were nasty and unlikable. Another member, who had read it before and so just skimmed it in preparation for the meeting, enjoyed it the first time and was surprised at how much she had forgotten by her second “reading” (this book had alot of characters, and it was very, very detailed!). Another member said she loved the book, calling it “spectacular”, and she applauded Rowling’s talent for creating so many very real characters that could evoke such strong emotions in her readers. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but as I was reading the book, I, too, had strong emotional responses towards each of the characters, and the responses varied so much with each character and situation - that really is the sign of a truly talented writer. One member felt that the novel offered a very realistic portrayal of Terri’s drug addiction, and thought that Rowling may have been writing from firsthand experience. We agreed that she was brave to point out the snobbishness of wealthy village society, and the common response to poverty or drug addiction of looking away in the hopes that one will not have to deal with it - the old NIMBY response (“not-in-my-backyard”). We all felt that this was an ambitious project (at over 500 pages, it was definitely “a big novel about a small town…”), and that it must have been alot of work to create so many fully-developed characters. There really weren’t any “main characters” and “secondary characters” - they were all equally as important to the story as all the others. We were trying to determine whether there were any truly likable characters in the novel, and decided that Kay Bawden was a good person, though not very perceptive in her own relationships with Gavin or Gaia; Parminder was good, but not nice to her youngest daughter; and Tessa was a good person, particularly for dealing with her husband’s issues as well as the problems with her son. Then someone said, “Well, Barry was probably the best one in the village”, which began a whole other thread of conversation. Was Barry a good guy? We’ll never know, because he dies within the first few pages. Of course everyone remembers him well and talks about his saintly qualities, but no one is going to speak ill of the dead. I learned that the term for this, seeing the best in someone who has died, is “sanctification”. I had just two sticky-note flags in my book. The first marked the only real reference I could find in the book that the author had previously written a successful series of books about wizards and magic: referring to the “casual vacancy” left by Barry’s death, two councillors saw it “not as an empty space, but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities” (p 38). The second was much further along in the book, as the story becomes darker: the opening line of chapter six in Part Three states, “Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised” (p. 288). This sums up the novel in just a few words. While at first this novel seemed a bit like a bad soap opera to me, it probed deep into many serious social issues and left me, as well as my book club members, considering the ways we view and respond to those members of society who are less fortunate than us. It was a great book club choice, and I would highly recommend anyone who has not read this novel to pick up a copy and give yourself enough time to read every page and appreciate every character.
Note: I was watching an episode of "Dalziel and Pascoe" last week while reading The Casual Vacancy and Peter said to Andy, "There is nothing more vicious than English village life", which I thought was so very appropriate!
That’s all for today. Get out and enjoy the hot, sunny day!
Bye for now…