I finally picked up The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. I hadn’t been in a hurry to read it, because some of the early reviews had made me think of the term “faint praise.” Some people (American critics, in particular) didn’t seem to know quite what to make of it.
I enjoyed it a lot by the end, but it took a little while to get into it and to get a sense of the many and complex characters. The book definitely lives up to its billing as a tragicomedy. It’s set in England’s West Country, in a small town called Pagford which continually attempts to set itself apart from the dilapidated council estate known as “the Fields;” in fact, there is a move afoot to have the parish boundaries redrawn.
Local council politics heat up after the sudden death of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother. There is plenty of scope for drama with this rich cast of characters: in the competition for the vacant seat and the revelations that accompany it; in the marriages; and in the painful relationships among the high school students and between them and their parents.
The humour is often black or, more precisely, Rowling employs a specific kind of British humour. The only way I can think to describe it is that it assumes understanding of the varied kinds of lives lived and attitudes held in the United Kingdom (very similar in many ways but importantly not identical to those of a similar set of households in North America) and a certain wry attitude on the part of the reader.
The portrayal of small town life is anything but sentimental. You get the impression that Rowling sees a lot of the dark side of human nature, though she also shows multifaceted views of each of her characters. No one is entirely admirable, but few are irredeemably bad. Rowling doesn’t shy away from portraying drugs, prostitution, and various kinds of abuse as well as a sort of flexible, situation-dependent morality that seems to flourish in the middle class.
Samantha was jammed so tightly between Miles and Maureen that she could feel Maureen’s sharp hip joint pressing into her flesh on one side and the keys in Miles’ pocket on the other. Furious, she attempted to secure herself a centimeter or so more room, but neither Miles nor Maureen had anywhere else to go, so she stared straight ahead, and turned her thoughts vengefully to Vikram, who had lost none of his appeal in the month or so since she had last seen him. He was so conspicuously, irrefutably good-looking, it was silly; it made you want to laugh. With his long legs and his broad shoulders, and the flatness of his belly where his shirt tucked into his trousers, and those dark eyes with the thick black lashes, he looked like a god compared to other Pagford men, who were so slack and pallid and porky. As Miles leaned forward to exchange whispered pleasantries with Julia Fawley, his keys ground painfully into Samantha’s upper thigh, and she imagined Vikram ripping open the navy wrap dress she was wearing, and in her fantasy she had omitted to put on the matching camisole that concealed her deep canyon of cleavage …
The organ stops creaked and silence fell, except for a soft persistent rustle. Heads turned: the coffin was coming up the aisle.
The pallbearers were almost comically mismatched: Barry’s brothers were both five foot six, and Colin Wall, at the rear, six foot two, so that the back end of the coffin was considerably higher than the front. The coffin itself was not made of polished mahogany, but of wickerwork.
It’s a bloody picnic basket!, thought Howard, outraged.
This was post-Scotch-tasting. Also tasted: an Auchentoshan 12 year, a Bruichladdich 4x (with no barrel time and therefore colourless), a 10-year-old Bruichladdich, a Port Charlotte 9 year (59%), and an Octomore 5 year (64%). An evening of bliss ensued, followed by a rather quiet time the following day.
Now that we have discovered the VIP movie theatre experience (assigned seating, wider leather seats, leg room, tables between the seats for snacks delivered by servers, not to mention the bar next door), it is rather tempting to never go back to the hassle of the average, uncomfortable movie theatre. Of course, it costs more and it is further away from home. But I notice fewer noisy groups, which has to be worth a little extra.
So, Skyfall. It’s the third time Daniel Craig has played Bond. In Skyfall, he is older and wearier and much less inclined to the classic Bond double entendres and man-of-the-world posing.
Nevertheless, the opening chase scene is as over the top as ever, with Bond sprinting and leaping, falling, crashing, and being viciously hit, punched and kicked just before a fresh bout of sprinting, leaping, and hanging on by his fingernails in a way that is presumably just routine for spies at his pay grade. When we watch a Bond, we are wise to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow. It’s a little odd, though, when Bond plays it straight, as he and Judi Dench do in all of their scenes together.
By contrast, the villain, played by Javier Bardem, is the usual over-the-top caricature of an evil, twisted mastermind who spends a lot of time talking about the hideous revenge he is going to unleash. Eventually. The new Q, played by Ben Whishaw, is entertaining. Eve (Naomie Harris), who is a hardworking agent at the beginning of the movie, is a far more interesting Bond Girl than the fragile, damaged Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), but she seems to take a demotion at the end as an excuse for a very brief scene with Bond.
The verdict: two hours and twenty-three minutes of entertaining escapism.