How not to write a best selling novel (unless you’re J.K. Rowling)

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Here there be spoilers. In case anyone’s burning to pick this one up.

My theory about this novel goes like this. J.K. Rowling was sitting at her ridiculously expensive roll top desk one day thinking “I’m a writer. I have to write more. I’ll write another novel. But I don’t want it to be like Harry Potter. So let’s see, what can I do to make it different? I know, I’ll write a list of things I want to avoid!”

This isn’t really a bad idea, in theory. I mean, if I ever decide to write an epic fantasy novel, I’d do the same thing (my hero wouldn’t be a country bumpkin/useless royal they’d be… I don’t know, a foot soldier with some skills, I’d have three mentors one who dies before the action, one who quits (and stays quitted) half way through and one who gets to enjoy retirement with their grandchildren and NO ONE will be walking/riding/using magic/flying on magical beasts for any length of time, everyone will be staying put and the evil will come to them) although my novel might never become a best seller.

Anyway, the point is J.K. Rowling wasn’t completely wrong to write herself a list. When she decided to check off whimsically named secondary characters, light putter outers and extra intelligent animals I was with her (I’ve read loads of books without those things that were all very good). I might have lost faith a little when she decided on adult, serious, political and focused on real issues but again, lots of books have these parts and are certainly readable. I got a little suspicious when she decided that in order to make it adult, serious, political and filled with real issues she decided that she needed to have every single real issue in it (seriously – domestic abuse, incest, pedophilia, rape, drug use, alcoholism, swearing, self harm, suicide, mental illness, failure of the social assistance system, racism, sex, masturbation, infidelity, cyber bullying and toddler death – and I feel like I’m missing a few) but I was willing to stick with it. Where she really lost me was when she decided that likable characters and compelling plot were too Harry Potter like to use in this book.

So ultimately what you get is a bunch of mean people running around and being unkind to each other in a small community where every single action ripples through a dozen families, all of whom kind of deserve it.

The story isn’t really about the characters as much as it’s about Pagford, a small village in the English countryside after the death of one of the local councilmen. There’s a list of characters at least fifteen points long, most of whom are tolerable at best and detestable at worst. Many of them are supposed to been seen as driven to their actions through desperation and unhappiness, and I believe that’s supposed to make them sympathetic, but in most cases it just made me feel like we, as a species, probably need to walk into a volcano and settle down there to wait for the end.

The book makes its incredible slow, meandering, depressing way towards a truly upsetting, heart wrenching ending that’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. I felt like I saw it coming but desperately hoped I was wrong because I find the death of small children upsetting, even in fiction.

Normally I gauge a book by it’s emotional impact on me. If that’s the case then there are really only two places where this book really succeeded. Krystal’s rape was horrifying, her mother’s reaction even more so and Krystal’s desperate move to save herself and her little brother from their situation was just heartbreaking. And in the last fifty pages I was actually engaged in the story and the characters. For once they didn’t all seem to be horrid, just broken. Not sympathetic, with the exception of Sukhvinder (who was probably the only character in the whole book who was consistently likable) just broken. To be pitied, not sympathized with. And at least J.K. Rowling had the decency not to try offering closure or an overly sentimental explanation for these events, just a little bit of hope that maybe one or two of the characters might turn a little more decent after all.

Last movie I watched: The Ghosts and the Darkness. I’m never pissing off a cat EVER AGAIN.

Last TV episode I watched: Probably still Supernatural.

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