Hazel McHaffie

dysfunctional families

A Casual Vacancy

Balance is a constant preoccupation of mine … in my writing, that is. Balance between serious and entertaining; light and dark; truth and fiction. Could this perhaps have influenced my assessment of The Casual Vacancy? Quite possibly.

Yep, I’ve finally got around to reading JK Rowling‘s first adult novel. And yes, I do know it’s old hat, a year old this month, in fact, but the truth is, I felt so ambivalent about reading a book that might cloud my view of an amazing writer. Conscience though, finally got the better of me: it simply wasn’t fair to ‘pigeonhole’ it without reading it.

As you probably know, The Casual Vacancy was an instant bestseller, much hyped by the publisher, purely on the basis of the author’s fame. But once out, it got a fairly hefty slating by the critics. Amazon readers too have been divided in their opinions. To date 482 people have given it either two or one star. But hey, 889 rated it worth 4 or 5 stars! Sigh. What must it be like to get 1600+ people posting reviews on Amazon? We lesser mortals can only dream. But I reckon it’s OK for me to be honest in my opinions about somebody with that size of following.

JK Rowling booksTo begin with it’s a door stopper of a book. (JKR goes in for hefty volumes, doesn’t she?) 503 pages in the hardback version. So free up a hefty chunk of time if you plan to read it. And you’ll need all your wits about you, because It tracks loads of characters, (81 somebody counted!) pretty much all of them dysfunctional, so the Samanthas and Shirleys and Aubreys and Andrews and Howards and Simons and Colins and Gavins and Julias take some sorting out. The author deserves some kind of accolade for juggling this number of balls all at once.

But more than that, she tackles an eye-watering number of difficult and dark topics: (in no particular order) paedophilia, bullying, mental illness, drug addiction, adultery, snobbery, suicide, child abuse, professional malpractice, prostitution, warring families, assorted criminal behaviours, sycophancy, class wars, computer hacking, self harm, rape, domestic violence, child death … That amount of misery and sheer wretchedness is pretty hard to take, especially when it’s all happening in one small fictional town, Pagford, in the Westcountry. So don’t come to this book for a feel-good factor! And certainly not if life is tough for you at the moment and you’re contemplating – be in never so remotely – self-harm. There are no Hogwartian wizards to magic everything right in this one. Tragedy’s the name of the game.

Because of my chosen profession, I’ve seen and heard a fair bit of the seamy side of life, but I must confess I found it hard to like or sympathise with any of these characters. Their language, their lifestyles, their malice, their selfish and cruel behaviours, make this a sordid tale, exasperating at times, infuriating at others. Even Barry Fairbrother who dies in the opening section leaving the casual vacancy on the town council, turns out not to be the saint he was thought to be. And he’s probably the best of the bunch – possibly because his early death spares him the scrutiny other characters get.

The focus is supposed to be on who will fill Barry’s seat, but I couldn’t care less who was on the council for the Pagfordites. A rotten lot through and through. No, for me, the more compelling saga is what will happen to Robbie Weedon, 3-year-old son of a drug-addicted prostitute, and kid brother of teenage rebel Krystal, who lives in a toy-less and chaotic house on a sink estate that’s a bone of contention for the said council. OK, there are those who’ve roundly condemned the author’s limited understanding of child protection, but leaving that aside, as the story unfolded I found myself warming to Krystal, a feisty youngster battling to hold her family together, and seeking a way out of the filth and squalor, in order to give wee Robbie a future. The self-centred, puffed-up, hypocritical adults competing for position and searching for lost youth and stabbing everybody else in the back left me cold, but in spite of her behaviour, I really did want Krystal to succeed against the odds and do Barry Fairweather’s memory proud. And I was rooting for Robbie the innocent pawn in a murky and deviant game. But happily I’m not someone who needs a happy ending and I actually thought the whole Weedon finale was handled well.

JKR has recently announced that she’s returning to children’s books, and I for one am glad to hear it. She’s at her best when she’s dealing with the children/teenagers in this book – their secret fears and aspirations, their insecurities and rebellion. Perhaps that’s why she has captured the hearts of millions. She understands their angst, how they tick. I can only hope they don’t get hold of a copy of The Casual Vacancy and have their image of a favourite author despoiled.

 

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Books, lists and preparations

Yesss! I had no less than three good excuses for sitting down for hours with a book In December, when I really should have been busy ticking things off the to-do list glaring at me from my desk. Three cast iron excuses to boot. 1. I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted, and was under instruction to take things easy for a couple of days. 2. The roads were treacherous with snow and ice making it inadvisable to venture out. 3. The author of the said book is Linda Gillard, and after the year she’s had, I was keen to review her book before Christmas. Which reminds me … 4. The book’s set at Christmas time so the mood was exactly right for reading it in December.

House of SilenceHouse of Silence is Linda’s fourth novel, and although it once again features mental illness and dysfunctional families, it’s otherwise very different from the three earlier ones I’ve read. Good start. As you know, I’m somewhat allergic to formulaic writing.

Gwen Rowland is a wardrobe assistant for film and television productions. She’s good at it too. But she’s alone in the world.

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs, and my Uncle Frank did men – boys if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ’90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectfully, cirrhosis of the liver, a drugs overdose and AIDS … My mother, fond as she was of cliches, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” And Sasha did.

Since the death of her mother, Gwen has dreaded Christmas with its appalling memories, and essential loneliness. So she finds it hard to understand why actor-boyfriend Alfie Donovan is reluctant to take her to Norfolk for his family celebrations. He has no choice but to go; it’s his duty to visit his mother and sisters. But why isn’t he appreciative of the richness of his own privilege – not just relatives, but a stately Elizabethan-manor-house home, and celebrity? Why isn’t he keen to share it?

Eventually Gwen wangles an invitation, though Alfie predicts it’ll be her ‘second-worst Christmas‘ ever. She warms instantly to the practical but eccentric sister Viv, and the scatty but creative Hattie, who still live at Creake Hall, but she grows increasingly disturbed by the changes in Alfie. Where is the family affection? What has made Rachel Holbrook, renowned children’s author, and their mother, hide in her room, granting only occasional audiences to visitors? Who is the mysterious gardener, Marek Zbydniewski, who sees right into Gwen’s soul? And what exactly is Hattie trying to tell her?

The cold and cavernous house is full of photographs and portraits, but they aren’t what they purport to be either. The sisters offer explanations for some of the discrepancies, but Gwen is growing increasingly mistrustful of everything about this family. Things just don’t add up. Who are they? And what secrets are they concealing? As she works on one of Hattie’s unfinished patchwork quilts, Gwen unravels more confusion and mystery that take her into a labyrinth of such complexity that the reader has to keep readjusting his or her own compass.

We’ve come to expect richness and depth in her characters from this author, who combines a light touch with thorough attention to detail. This time the layers of authenticity come from psychology, quilting, gardening, writing, acting, music. And although the underlying tale takes us into dark places of the mind, there’s plenty of light and shade, with eccentricities and humour providing the contrast and lifting the spirits.

So, the verdict? I enjoyed the book greatly. No difficulty sitting tight for a day and a half. Although, to be ultra-pernickety, I confess I’d personally have preferred a less tidied-up ending, and far fewer exclamation marks …! Sorry, Linda, but your prose is strong enough not to need them.

OK, review posted, now I can get back to that to-do list.

Decorate the house …decorated fireplaceWrap parcels …parcelsBake cakes … mull wine … Relax! I’m not going to bore you with humdrum domesticity. No, only wish you all peace and happiness whatever the season means to you.

 

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