Sunday, October 21, 2012

Friends, Neighbors, & All the Spaces in Between


Say what you will about Mr. Rogers* (yeah, I giggled plenty at those ghastly cardigans and nerdy lace-up shoes of his, too), but the man knew something about being neighborly. To him, it had nothing to do with what you wore (teehee), drove, or did for a living; it meant being friendly and nice to the people next door or down the street... waving and stopping to chat, making the effort to learn pets’ and people’s names, even having a cup of sugar at the ready to lend during baking emergencies. 

Things have changed a lot since Mr. Rogers first went on TV showing good little boys and girls around his perfect neighborhood, though. We pick up stakes and move (often, before we’ve even met those who live on either side of us); we keep odd hours (not exactly conducive to friendly coffee klatches); and, while technology has given us the ability to interact with people all around the globe... it has also pretty much done away with the desire for all but the most strictly-necessary contact with our physical neighbors. 

Still, the smaller the area, the more traditionally-neighborly folks tend to be... and, in her first work since completing the mammoth Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling puts the residents of one such small British town under a microscope, with her eagerly-awaited tale, The Casual Vacancy.

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The residents of tiny Pagford are much like people in any little community. Some of them--namely, those who claim the honor of holding one of sixteen coveted spots on the Pagford Parish Council (and thus feel more than the usual amount of pride at the smooth runnings of their quaint, peaceful community)--are pleased as punch with the status quo. Others--those not born-and-bred in Pagford, or who don’t enjoy the benefits conferred by any particular status or rank, who instead pine for the bright lights of the big city (any city, really)--are rather less than sanguine with their surroundings, picturesque as they may be.

When youthful council member Barry Fairbrother drops dead suddenly, the whole town is shocked--not just because he was a generally well-liked, nice man who had a kind word for everyone, and a popular teacher with boundless energy and an upbeat attitude, but because his demise leaves an unexpected hole on the council. 

So, while much of the town mourns the loss--from his wife Mary (who can’t begin to understand losing her husband on their wedding anniversary) and their four children, to fellow council member (and close friend) Dr. Parminder Jawanda, to his old university chum-cum-lawyer Gavin Hughes, to all the members of the after-school girls‘ rowing team he had coached to numerous victories--another segment finds itself contemplating how his demise might affect each of their political futures.

Pagford, it seems, is something of a political hotbed beneath the outer layer of gentility... and the sudden opening on the council (the titular “casual vacancy”, in legal-speak) is about to blow that prized gentility to smithereens.

What could possibly be so hotly-contested in this bucolic hamlet? It almost always comes down to money, doesn’t it, and is true here as well, as a group of the townsfolk focus on ridding themselves of fiscal responsibility for the Fields, a low-income housing development. Built on the edge of Pagford decades earlier--against popular wishes--on a chunk of sold-off land formerly owned by the wealthiest family in the community, it’s been a sore spot ever since. (The estate is actually a continuation of one maintained by neighboring Yarvil, a larger town down the road, and nothing would make many Pagfordites happier than if Yarvil had total responsibility for the running--and policing--of the troublesome neighborhood.) 

The biggest proponents of foisting off the Fields? Council leader--successful deli owner and hale-fellow-well-met--Howard Mollison (who would love to see his son Miles in Barry’s old seat) and all of his supporters.

On the other side of the fence--the followers of Barry Fairbrother, who had fought hard to keep the Fields and funding for the anti-drug clinic there--are Dr. Parminder, new-to-Pagford social worker, Kay Bawden (who didn’t know Barry, but believes real good can be done for area residents via the clinic’s drug program), and Barry’s fellow teacher, Colin “Cubby” Wall (a mousey, troubled fellow who would do anything to honor his friend’s memory).

Somewhere in between, of course, lies everyone else... those who have no interest in politics, and those not eligible to vote if they did care--the youth of Pagford and the Fields.         

From the usual frenzy leading up to an election, and some surprising candidates throwing their names into the ring, to several shocking revelations that come to light when person (or persons) unknown hack the council website, dishing out major dirt on the various contenders, things are about to come to a head in Pagford... and the neighbors will never be the same again.
  
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The Casual Vacancy is destined be one of those love-it or loathe-it books. Much of the dislike will be down to nothing more than the complete absence of wizards, wands, and mythical critters. (Rowling made not only a special kind of magic with her wildly-popular Harry Potter series; she created her own monster, as well, and will have to live with it.) There will probably be a lot of of naysayers among those willing to give her first adult-themed work a shot, though, too. It’s a long book, and will doubtless strike some as a rambling road ultimately leading to nowhere (with frequent stops for soapbox stumping along the way). Others will find the some of the subject matter unpleasant or hard to take (physical abuse, rape, self-mutilation, poverty, drug abuse, bigotry, and pedophilia are all present).

But there will also, I think, be plenty of people like me, who find The Casual Vacancy a ridiculously-good read... a justifiably-big book (meandering only in the sense that life is like that), chock-full of the blackest humor, brilliant observations (adults and teenagers alike alternate between being canny and patently blind), pithy witticisms, and of course, Rowling’s ever-eloquent (and always in a completely-accessible sense) prose... all wrapped around bigger ideas that get at the very heart of who we are, how we view one another (and our responsibilities), and the lengths we will (or won’t) go to, in the pursuit of chasing our ideals.

From the very first pages of The Casual Vacancy, I was reminded of two of my favorite authors of psychological suspense--Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, both of whom have a real knack for watching and understanding human nature, and conveying the varying degrees that responsibility--personal and social--play into our actions. That this book made me draw such a comparison--and that it ripped tears out of me like a leaky faucet at the end--is high praise, make no mistake.

If you’re fascinated by what makes regular people tick, and you like taking on thought-provoking questions, pick up The Casual Vacancy. It’s really worth it.  


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: ALL the exuberant mousies


* Host (now deceased) of the long-running American TV show for children, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”.

2 comments:

  1. I reading it at the moment. So far so good, except there were just too many characters, introduce all at the same time one after the other at the beginning of the book for me to be able to follow who is who. Now, at about ¼ of the book I can follow it all, but yeah I can see how some people wouldn't like reading that kind of book, not much people like to see the misery that exist in our world.

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    1. It is a challenge to keep up with all the characters, especially early on when you're trying to learn who everyone is (and how they're related, etc.)--about how it would feel, I suppose, to suddenly find yourself as an outsider, plunked down in the middle of Pagford (or any other new place).

      Hopefully readers will think the book is thought-provoking (amusing, touching), and not give up on it before they've reached the end. For me, at least, the emotional pay-off was pretty moving.

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