Since we are poor and I can't justify spending $35 on a book that I'm not sure if I'll like at the moment, I was in the library queue for J. K. Rowling's new book, The Casual Vacancy. I finally got it about a week and a half ago.
I read it over two days (this is normal to slow reading speed for me--yes, I know I'm annoying), and when I finished it the second evening, sitting in bed while J. was snoring beside me, I wasn't sure how to react.
It's a good book. The quality of writing is far higher than the last couple Harry Potter books (the best of the bunch in my opinion), and Rowling does not sacrifice story for sentiment. This is always a difficult thing for a writer, I think. I'm crap at writing tragedy, and when I realize that something really bad has to happen to a character, it's almost a mourning process. My almost-ready-to-go novel has one character who, in the very first incarnation of the book, was going to die. I kept her alive, partly because I was too chicken to kill her, and partly because it worked better for the plot just to have lots of horrific things happen to her. But it still hurts to have ripped her apart like that, even for the sake of the story.
However, unlike me, Rowling fearlessly allows bad things to happen and it makes the story better as a result. I hadn't read about the story, and I had no idea what was going to happen, so by the time I reached the end, I was almost traumatized. This, I think, is what a good tragedy should do. As Kafka said, "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us." I felt cracked open after reading this book.
When the book began, I thought it would be a dark comedy. Indeed, the exposition is very much darkly humourous. I couldn't stop laughing, but it was the kind of laughter that is followed by knife-twisting reality. None of the characters in the book are truly good--they are all dangerously flawed, and so few of them are self-aware that they don't even realize how flawed they are. As a result, the damage they cause to those around them is excruciating.
The truly frightening thing is that the characters' petty squabbles, which cause so much pain, are real. It is easy to look at the story and see it playing out in reality somewhere. There are people like that. There are many people like that. And I shudder to think which character I might resemble most. I don't want to be any of them, but it scares me to think that my tendency towards being judgemental, which I try to tightly rein in, might break loose and become that destructive.
The book really is a tragedy: it begins with a death and ends with a funeral. There is resolution for some characters, but not for others, as so often happens in reality. I don't read tragedy often. I find that unless it is truly a good book, the emotional anguish isn't worth it. And I'm a sap. I love happy endings. To be fair, I prefer interesting happy endings to sentimental ones, but I still like the happiness, the comedy, the story ending with a wedding, or something like that. I like the reminder that there is hope in the world. This is probably why I don't like 1984 or Frankenstein, but really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale.
And yet...The Casual Vacancy was well worth the read, and I feel better for having read it. I don't know if I'll feel inclined to re-read it. My tendencies towards depression mean that multiple re-reads of dark tragedies aren't really the best mental fodder. Still, having read it once, I can say that it is worth at least a single, thorough read-through. It will be painful, but it's the sort of pain that's good for you. If it prompts some good introspection, so much the better.
A side-note: It's really not for children, and I can't emphasize that enough. If you have a mature 16 or 17-year-old, maybe they could read it, but I was pretty mature at 17 and I don't think it would have been a good idea for me to read it then. 18+ is my recommendation. This is not the Harry Potter series. This is something entirely different. You can still tell it's Rowling--her style, though further developed through time and practise, is very evident. But this is not for children. It's also not for those readers who are easily offended by characters who swear, or who have idealized views of the world that they prefer to keep.