The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

This is a good novel. No one should say surprisingly, for Rowling is a born storyteller and a solid technician in this 2012 work. What I admired from the beginning was her creation of life in a small British town, Pagford, from the political confrontations to the family jealousies to the juvenile insecurities. And from the class warfare to the social ills to the generational conflicts.

The novel begins when a pillar of the town, Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies. This calls for a vote to replace him on the parish council—which introduces political conflict, since the dead man wanted to keep the town together rather than exile a poor community to another jurisdiction. To explore this conflict, we meet the families on both sides. There are Howard and Shirley Mollison, who run the council and want to rid the town of the poor, including a local clinic; their son Miles, a candidate following his father’s wishes; and Miles’ wife, Samantha. There are the Prices, whose son Andrew resents his father Simon and his decision to run for the council to take advantage of potential graft. And there is Andrew’s pal Stuart (Fats), whose father, Colby, is running to preserve the policies of the dead man.

Beyond the political intrigue, there is social conflict, centered on the poor Weeden family. Daughter Krystal is a teenager whose mother Terri is a self-centered prostitute and a heroin addict. Krystal adores her three-year-old brother, Robbie, whom her mother neglects. The daughter is the novel’s most fully developed character, and Rowling seems to identify with her insecurities, her contradictions, and yet her sound family sense. The Weedon’s friendly social worker is Kay Bawden, who has a beautiful daughter Gaia. Kay has come to Pagford hoping to find security with Gavin Hughes, a local lawyer. Finally, there is Parminda Jawanda, a doctor with a conscience, a handsome husband, and a plain, insecure daughter. Sukhvinder.

This is a complicated roster of characters, actually eight families, to follow during the town’s political and social intrigue. And it is complicated further by the five children. Andrew is buddies with Fats, and is in love with Gaia, who is best buddies with Sukhvinder. Meanwwhile, Fats has a continuing affair with Krystal, who wants to have a child in order to escape her family. And the still further complication is that each of these five children has a major problem with his or her parents.

In sum, I was impressed and absorbed by this portrait of a town and its families in conflict. But then “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” enters, leaving scandalous messages about the parish council and its candidates on the council’s website. Now, the more significant plotting of the novel truly begins, for these messages are being left, we know, by the three children, Andrew, Fats, and Sukhvinder, to revenge themselves on their parents. It is a unique plot device that is credible and certainly is in keeping with modern technology, yet it also reflects, in its way, the hand of the author—an author who has just written a classic series of novels about teenagers, the Harry Potter series.

And, indeed, the rest of this novel revolves around the actions of these five teenagers. The political conflict and election now recedes into the background, except for one argumentative but anti-climactic parish council meeting. The novel’s pace also quickens, as the children’s actions replace the verbal altercations of the adults. The final action centers on the desperate actions of Krystal and their impact on her family and on her fellow teenagers.

As I began reading this novel, it seemed that Rowling was determined to convince critics that she could write a true novel for adults. This came across from her portrait of this town, its political situation, and its various families. I sensed she was now writing from a life she knew, as serious writers do, rather than from a life she imagined. Toward the end, however, while I still considered it a valid, serious novel, it seemed to me that a commercial aspect, an emphasis on plot more than on relationships, was seeping in. Finally, the emphasis on the children at the end seemed to reflect the type of characters, the record has shown, she is most comfortable with.

It is this emphasis on the children at the end that most concerns me. The novel began as a portrait of a town, of its hypocrisies and its prejudices. This legitimately included the frustrations of its teenagers with their parents. But these frustratione began to drive the plot, and the reader gradually isn’t sure where the emphasis is meant to lie. Finally, the action of one teenager to take all the blame for the website messages and the death of another seems insufficiently prepared for, seems insufficiently motivated.

Perhaps the one aspect that I agree with in Kakutani’s very negative Times review is that there are no good characters here that the reader can identify with, as there would naturally be in an average small town. All are intended to come alive through their weaknesses. The social worker Kay is a good person at heart, but she is ineffective, and emerges as inconsequential. And Krystal’s goodness is outweighed by her anti-social rebellion. The result is an expose of this town more than a recreation of it. And a novel that leaves us depressed more than exhilarated, having introduced us to characters we would not really want as friends or neighbors.

On the other hand, the teenagers are more interesting as individuals than the adults. The prejudices of the adults could be considered more stereotypical, whereas the teenagers have their own individual problems and react to one another, and talk to one another, in their own individual way. As a result, we get to know them better, understand them better, and so sympathize with them better, even if we are disturbed by much of their conduct and remain unconvinced by their final actions and final fate.

To sum up, this is an admirable, old-fashioned novel about small-town English life, but it is peopled by unsympathetic characters and somewhat manipulated by the author to convey a message of social injustice and personal hypocrisy. It is dominated in the end by children, with whom she seems more comfortable, and who perhaps reflect the experience and emotions of her own past. (November, 2014)

Compass Rose, by John Casey

This 2010 work is a beautiful novel, and just my kind of novel. It became so on the very first page, as the key women of the novel attend a boy’s baseball game. Casey was perhaps comfortable with these women because he was so familiar with them, since they are characters we first met in his novel Spartina, which I so enjoyed and which won the National Book Award in 1989.

And I, too, was comfortable, for I encountered here a family group and their neighbors in a small Rhode Island town who regarded the world and each other with the same generosity and sensitivity with which I regard the world myself. Whether or not Casey was raised a Catholic, and even though there is no element of religion here, there is a sense of values that fully matches my own.

A compass rose is a marking on a compass that helps one orient oneself by showing the cardinal (north, south, etc.) and intermediate bearings of the compass. This novel is called Compass Rose, because the fulcrum of the story is a girl named Rose, as she grows from an infant to a woman heading off to college. This Rose is the illegitimate daughter of Dick, the main character of Spartina who is married to May, and Elsie, with whom he had a tempestuous affair in the first novel.

The title is doubly appropriate, because Dick earns his life at sea, where a compass is so necessary, and his daughter Rose is the character who brings together, who helps orient, the lives of everyone in this book.

While this is a continuation of Spartina, one does not need to have read that work to understand or enjoy this novel. It is entirely self-contained. And because it takes place across 18 years, it develops its own reality, its own frame of reference. Indeed, the events here read not like the plot of a novel but like actual life in this small community. It is primarily the story of Elsie and her daughter; of Elsie’s friend Mary who lives with them and sees the importance of Rose getting close to her father; and of May, Dick’s wife, whose acceptance is needed to bring Rose close to her father.

But there are also other important characters, many of whom are involved in a conflict between the long-time residents of South County and a luxury development at Sawtooth Point that wishes to expand by taking over the home of Dick and May, as well as other local property. The developer, Jack Aldrich, is married to Sally, who is Mary’s sister. Jack is the closest to being the villain of this novel, but he is so intent on doing good in his own terms that everyone finds it difficult to dislike him. The fisherman Dick is not a prominent character, since he is often at sea, nor are his sons Charles and Tom. This is the story of the women, and it is told from their point of view.

If the sea was prominent in Spartina, it is the woods, marshes and salt ponds that provide the natural element in this novel, a setting that stands in for the natural evolution of life, growth, decay, and death. These ponds and woods are beautifully described, and are a haven for Elsie who is a local nature warden.

Elsie has been introduced to this natural world by the elderly Miss Perry, her former teacher and another prominent character. Indeed, in her final days, Miss Perry commissions Elsie to become the conscience of the region, much as she herself was, in face of the proposed takeover by the encroaching Sawtooth Point.

There are many developments in this novel. The first is the bringing together of Rose, Elsie, Mary, May, and Dick. The second is the fate of Miss Perry. The third is the departure of Mary from Elsie’s house and her discovery of love. There are also minor dramatic elements, such as when Charles is injured at sea, when Dick ‘s boat sinks and he needs to be rescued, and when Rose earns the role of lead singer in her high school musical. But overall, from early on, hangs the shadow of the Sawtooth takeover of the property of these longtime residents.

Jack Aldridge, who runs Sawtooth, is an interesting character, complex on one level but mainly a shallow foil when compared to the women of the novel. He has an ambitious dream that he convinces himself will enhance the community, and he plots and maneuvers to have his way. Yet one doubts that Casey intends him as a true villain, based on the fate Jack encounters on the final pages. Indeed, those final pages reverberate with the sympathy Casey has for all his characters, and particularly the women.

The novel winds down with, first, Rose’s performance, and the negative reaction of Elsie, who just does not understand that her daughter has the same independence of spirit her mother had when she challenged convention in her affair with Dick. Slowly, Elsie realizes her own frustrations prompted by both the need to share Rose with others and the expansive maneuvering of Sawtooth Point that threatens everyone who matters to her.

Indeed, there is a final gathering of all the characters, as a resolution to the Sawtooth incursion is achieved. Ironically, or realistically, this resolution reflects the inevitability of human as well as natural evolution. It is another way of saying that we are all involved with each other and must bend to each other’s needs.

Dominique Browning, in her beautiful review in the Times, writes: “This bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations on true north, its own way of tilting into alignment. Like the love affair that is the novel’s magnetic pole, Compass Rose gathers its quiet strength from a slow accretion of instants of intimacy, ‘both ferocious, and serene,’ moments that bubble up, collapse, and decompose in the natural order of things, on their way to becoming the history of a place.”

Another reviewer says that this is the second volume of a planned trilogy. Could the final volume revolve around the expansion of Sawtooth Point? I would indeed be interested in a concluding volume, for this work is far superior to anything else by Casey. But we surely cannot wait another 20 years for this 75-year-old author to produce such a work. (June, 2014)

Hamilton Stark, by Russell Banks

This early 1978 novel appears to be what is called metafiction. It is certainly Banks luxuriating in the possibilities of fiction. It is also a young author applying all that he has learned about the craft of fiction, as well as much of what he has learned about human relations. One senses that Banks is attempting to stretch the parameters of the novel. Or at least how far he himself can go.

The result is a novel that pays as much attention to technique as to content. That is, an interesting portrait of a middle-aged New Hampshire loner is probed from a variety of geographical, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical viewpoints. Not to mention that author Banks is writing a novel about an author who is writing a novel about a local named A, whom he calls Hamilton Stark in his book, and then learns that the subject’s daughter is writing her own book about her father, calling him Alvin Stock. And from her book Bank’s narrator appropriates much of his own content.            

Nor to mention that the narrator keeps confiding to the reader how he is constructing his novel, how he will provide certain information later, for example. Which in turn is Banks confiding how he is constructing what we are reading. As a result, we are often reading about these characters twice removed, a narrative about a narrative.            

The novel begins with the narrator calling unexpectedly on an old friend he calls A—not wishing to identify him, apparently New England reticence. He does not find A, but does find his car with three bullet holes in the driver’s side window. The rest of the novel consists of various characters speculating about what has happened to A, and in the process creating a portrait of A.            

Banks hints at the elusiveness of this novel by having his narrator immediately postulate three possible explanation of what has happened to his friend; and this, he says, is what prompts the narrator to start his novel. And like many a novice novelist, the narrator thinks it helpful to explain A’s (Stark’s) backstory. Thus, we read the geography and history of his town, then about his ancestors, then the story of his various relationships with his father and mother, his daughter, and finally his five wives. None of this advances the story of A’s fate, of course, and we soon realize that it is really the portrait of the missing man, Stark, that interests Banks.

Indeed, the remainder of this novel is that portrait, that backstory of a man who was selfish, incommunicative, and a loner. And hated by everyone, starting with his 26-year-old daughter Rochelle. As the narrator learns that Rochelle has already attempted to write her own novel about her father, about an Alvin Stock, as he appropriates some of her work with her approval, and as the novel delves further and further into Stark’s backstory, a structural problem surfaces. The story keeps moving backward, rather than forward. And this backstory is largely narrated, rather than dramatized, Which is a pity, for the dramatized sections, with their movement and dialogue, are particularly good.

Of course, this narrative (rather than dramatic) approach allows Banks to have considerable control over how he presents the man’s portrait. He can offer the salient points, without paying attention to the chronological order. Moreover, his narrator frequently tells the reader there is additional information he will reveal later; but if this is in order to create suspense, this strategy did not work for me. Also, inhibiting my interest are a few lists, the most obvious being the chapter, 100 Selected, Uninteresting Things Done and Said by Hamilton Stark. All these lists are simply Banks toying with his subject, and showing off to the reader; and in this particular chapter I skipped the last 75 uninteresting things.

What is interesting, in the absence of discovering what has happened to Stark, are his relationships with his father, his five wives, and his daughter. None of them like him, for he has treated them crudely or unfairly. But the narrator does not feel the same way about him. He admires Stark for being in control of his own life and enjoying that life—his guns, his drinking, his women.

Later, through the narrator’s friendship with a character named C, we probe abstractly, and a little too deeply for me, the intricacy of the relationship between men and women, as exemplified by the life of Stark. This appears to be the author expounding on his own knowledge, as much as it is the characters probing their understanding of human relationships as they apply to Stark. The idea is that women try to raise in men feelings of guilt, and this explains the attitude of Stark’s mother toward him. In fact, Banks gives this theory an ironic twist, when his narrator has an affair with Rochelle, and she then gives him a sense of guilt for using the material from her novel that she had previously agreed to let him do. But one cannot ignore that this irony is developed in a footnote that runs eight pages—as it shows Banks again playing with structure in order to squeeze in a mere sidelight.

While this portrait of small-town New Hampshire life is quite well done, this novel also lacks for me an emotional impact. Because it has been conceived on an intellectual level. This is revealed by its emphasis on both structure and the narrative technique—an approach that interposes that second plane of reality between the reader and Stark—a plane that hinders the reader from identifying with the emotions of Stark, or even that of the narrator. The inconclusive ending also re-enforces this impression, as if the author does not care what happens to Stark, that his point has already been made.

Of course, Banks might reply that the purpose of the novel is the portrait, and not what actually happened to the subject. But for me, that reveals an author too much immersed in his craft, and not enough in his characters. It is as if he understands the complexity of human beings, but is not yet able to, or else does not yet care to, convert that complexity into richly dramatic events. (April, 2014)