Friday, October 19, 2012

An Irresistible Temptation

I held out as long as I could. After all, I have other books to review. I started a review of the marvelous Red Velvet and Absinthe (an anthology of gothic erotica) about a year ago, and I think it would be appropriate to post a finished review somewhere before Halloween.

I finished reading Heiresses of Russ 2011 several months ago. This collection of sci-fi or speculative fiction is divergent and uneven, but the book is based on a noble concept: celebrating lesbian sci-fi. Heiresses of Russ 2012 is already out, and I hope the series continues for many years. The stories are all reprints of the best lesbian sci-fi of the year, named for the late Joanna Russ. She is probably best-remembered for her novel The Female Man, which was a kind of Bible for imaginative feminists of the 1970s. Several of the authors in the new anthologies seem like worthy successors.

Lately, I’ve been seeing copies of J.K. Rowling’s novel for grownups, The Casual Vacancy, in every local store that carries books. A recent issue of The New Yorker carried an article, “Mugglemarch,” on Rowling’s career, her vast fortune, her upbringing, and the relevance of all this to her recent novel, which took her approximately five years to write.

Every time I’ve seen a stack of hardcover copies with their loud red-and-yellow covers marked with a thick black “X” in the centre, I’ve thought, No. I’ll get it when it’s out in paperback. Then I saw it in a grocery store for 40% off the original retail price. I snapped it up.

So far, the novel is cinematic: it has a large cast of characters, and the third-person narrator (like the roving eye of a movie camera) dives into various houses to show how the inhabitants of Pagford, a village in the English “West Country,” react to an unexpected death.

I’m always interested to see how other writers describe experiences they haven’t had, and death probably tops the list of these. By definition, it’s one that no living writer could have experienced. Although I’m not fit to judge the accuracy of Rowling’s description of a brain aneurysm, it looks convincing to me. Here a fortyish businessman, Barry Fairbrother, has arrived at the golf club restaurant with his wife, Mary, to celebrate their nineteenth wedding anniversary. He is trying to ignore the “thumping headache” he has had for days:

“Mary switched off the mirror light and closed the passenger side door. Barry pressed the auto lock on the key ring in his hand; his wife’s high heels clacked on the tarmac, the car’s locking system beeped, and Barry wondered whether his nausea might abate once he had eaten.

"Then pain such as he had never experienced sliced through his brain like a demolition ball. He barely noticed the smarting of his knees as they smacked onto the cold tarmac; his skull was awash with fire and blood; the agony was excruciating beyond endurance, except that endure it he must, for oblivion was still a minute away.”

Mary screams, other people rush out from the restaurant and someone phones for an ambulance, which must come from the neighbouring city of Yarvil. It takes 25 minutes, and by then Barry is dead.

The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath of Barry’s unexpected death, which has an effect on local politics.

None of the characters is described in great depth, but Rowling writes in the great tradition of British social satire (thus the implied comparison with George Eliot’s nineteenth-century novel Middlemarch), and the plot gathers momentum as it unfolds. I’ve just finished reading a grimly funny description of a morning assembly in a rundown comprehensive school filled with 1200 sarcastic teenagers from Yarvil and surrounding area. When the assistant headmaster announces Barry Fairweather’s death, a girl at the back of the hall makes a sound which the speaker interprets as a laugh – how dare she?

Krystal, the suspect, tells the school counsellor that she “din’t do nothing!” and she seems sincere. The counsellor has been trying to win Krystal’s trust while trying to clean up Krystal’s language, but attempting both those goals at once is a losing game. The drama of the generation gap seems true to life.

Like the sullen boy in this novel who usually sneaks a fag (cigarette) on his way to school, I’ll read this big novel in installments when I have time, mostly on the bus to and from work. I’ll probably post some comment after I’ve finished, though I’ll try to avoid giving too much away. (The death at the beginning is a catalyst, not a climax, and it is mentioned in the trailers.)

I can’t help wondering if there will be a movie before long, and if the author was already visualizing it as she wrote.


  1. Jean - Let me know what you think about the Casual Vacancy when you do finish. My TBR pile is, as usual, teetering, but I'm tempted. It would be a nice change to read a book set in England where every one isn't doomed upper class and WWII isn't forever on the near horizon.

  2. Hi, Jean,

    The one review I've read of A Casual Vacancy was dismissive, but that's predictable, isn't it?

    I'll probably be able to find a used copy here in a few months!

  3. Hi Jean!

    I haven;t read Rowling's new book yet, I'm still waitingto get to the Harry Potter books. But I can imaginewhat preassure in a way must be on her as she makes this transition from wild success to a more conevntional form of writing. It would be like the when the Beatles split up and made solo albums. They were okay but they weren't the Beatles. Rowling is okay but she's not J K Rowling.


  4. Kathleen, Lisabet and Garce,

    Thanks for the comments. I will definitely let you know what I think when I've finished reading --it's a hefty book, and I'm impressed that Rowling put in that much effort when she doesn't need to work for money, ever again. I'm getting the sense that she wanted to address several social issues that would have been out of place in a Harry Potter novel (poverty & drug addiction, among others). If only I didn't need to sleep now and then.


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