Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

I waited way too long to write this review. So it's not as detailed as I'd like because I've already forgotten so much. But alas have it anyway.

The last time I wrote about The Casual Vacancy, I had read 130 pages of it and I did not much like it. It felt like any literary fiction book I could pick up to read. J.K. Rowling's ability to understand character was reduced to the most dreary thoughts and existence any character could have. Also there was about a million of them and I was having a hard time keeping them all straight. I had read reviews that called the book a slog, a friend that finished before me didn't like it, and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to either.

And then I did. It really surprised me because I was really pretty certain I wouldn't. I mean I was even reading this on a day when my head was absolutely throbbing and I was feeling attacked by allergies. But I think the thing it ultimately comes down to is that I experience my faith in a way somewhat similar to how J.K. Rowling experiences hers and she hit on some of my absolute favorite thematic material. What I'm going to share with you is the slightly religious reading of The Casual Vacancy I've become attached to. I can't really take credit for it, because it was Christianity Today's review that made this come together for me, in a way that was like...aha! Also, I don't think it's the definitive way to see the book or the only way to read it, it just makes sense to me.

As I was reading the book, I was like man I miss Barry. But Barry dies in the opening pages, it's his lingering spirit that feels like the only goodness in the whole book. He isn't perfect, but he genuinely cares about people. Parminder wonders if she was in love with him, even though she had no physical attraction to him. He is from The Fields, the despised land that has Pagford fighting over, desperate to rid themselves of (can anything good come out of Nazareth?). He is a sort of Christ figure of The Casual Vacancy, and what makes this sort of outstanding is that he dies right away. The Casual Vacancy refers to his council seat that the town must fill. But the real vacancy that exists within Pagford is the love and compassion and mercy that Barry had for people. He leaves a huge void and can anyone fill it?

There are people left behind who want to try. Colin is certain he must carry out Barry's wishes but he lacks the same convictions and genuine concern Barry had. Parminder is mired in work and home issues and has come to see the fight as more of a competition to defeat Howard than one she believes in. And Kaye is a newcomer with a good heart but she lacks the history and knowledge of the inner workings of the political system. And then there's also Gavin, who thinks he's in love with Barry's wife, but really only wishes he had Barry's life.

People often talk about the gospel being that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but that is not actually it. The Gospel is this: The Kingdom is here. The kingdom of God is not a fancy place in the sky, but it is the Christian fellowship of believers loving each other, caring for one another's needs, working for social justice in the world. Jesus lived among us, but then he left. And we were meant to carry on his work. This way of seeing the Kingdom of God probably seems really obvious to certain religious traditions, but it's not really the understanding that I grew up with so when it was clarified for me in my early twenties it felt revolutionary. We are the Kingdom of God. And the way it works out on earth is pretty imperfect, but we are being made perfect, etc.

I mean one of the characters, Fats Lexie Mollison, is even into Nietzsche who so famously declared the death of God. (whatever he meant by that--also there was other stuff about the hedonistic pleasures of life the teenagers were into that I don't really remember at the moment) And there's this scene towards the end where one of the characters is in need and three other characters walk by without helping. I was glad to learn that others saw this as a reference to the parable of the good Samaritan as well, though a darker take.

J.K. Rowling's book is an appeal to help those less fortunate through our political systems. But it's an appeal to our hearts to care about others and recognize that we alone have the power to fill the vacancy that currently exists...the choice to love, be compassionate and merciful, to do the hard work of these acts. It's not glamorous or pretty, but if we don't do it, who will?

These were the things I liked about the book and the reason why I'll keep it. I think I may want to revisit it in the future. It's not exactly a pleasant read and it's flawed for sure. Others have already brought up the issue of fat-bashing in the book so I'll just link you to that. But what I appreciate about Rowling's books is that they make me think about more than the surface of the story. It feels like a book worthy of being read and talked about and not just because she wrote it.

Anyway, I was watching Parks and Recreation earlier this year and was actually jolted by this feeling of familiarity, and I was like WHAT IS THIS? And then I realized that it was reminding me of The Casual Vacancy! I mean seriously, Leslie Knope is a Barry, the person who loves Pawnee despite the fact that there isn't even that much to love about Pawnee. She doesn't care. And there's even Eagleton the big rich neighboring town that hates Pawnee, lol. And Leslie has transformed everyone around her into people that work hard for her goals and believe in them, but if she left (lol I can't bring myself to say died!!) would they be able to carry on in the same way? I don't think so. Because I think they love Leslie more than they fully love Pawnee for themselves. So...if you wanted you could give The Casual Vacancy a miss and go for the much more fun and always good-hearted Parks and Recreation!

I'd really love to hear what you guys think of the book and yes it's okay if you totally disagree!!


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