After reading the sixth chapter of The House of Arden, I went out to the store to see the crowd that was doubtless assembled to buy J.K. Rowling’s new work of artistic genius. However, there was no crowd, no one was even paying attention to the book and it took me a while to even notice it, so I at first spent a lot of time considering whether I should cross the busy road to see the crowd at Jay & Mary’s, but I couldn’t find a good point, so I went home, first following a middle-aged Indian man across the pedestrian walk. He turned around and asked me something, and I said “What?” He said something in Hindi. I ran ahead of him and went home. Then I went back with my money to buy The Casual Vacancy, which I got with $20 and some cents in change.
It appears to be structured rather unusually. At first I thought it didn’t have any chapters, but it seems to, just organized in days of the week with breaks within these chapters themselves. (I hate when books do that. It’s so strange.)
J.K. Rowling begins by showing us the term “casual vacancy” defined in the Seventh Edition of the Local Council Administration. It’s structured almost too well to be real, ending with the case in which a councilor has died. And as Rowling has said, death is the casual vacancy, isn’t it?
“Cedric was lying spread-eagled on the ground beside him. He was dead.”
All the people who mocked “What’s casual about a vacancy?” are idiots. It’s a brilliant metaphor, just perfect.
The chapter is done much like the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, POV-wise. It starts out in the second-person POV of Barry, and then takes an outside view related to no POV, just like occurs after Frank Bryce’s death.
And Rowling establishes the “casual vacancy” so wonderfully that it becomes terrifying to imagine this happening to us. Barry Fairbrother is going through his daily life, worrying about his relationship with his wife and the article he’s sent in to the newspaper. (Which is strange; I thought he was a councilman ???) He just has a minor headache in the back of his skull, nothing to worry about.
My one real complaint is that Rowling destroys the sudden shock we would have had by writing that Barry’s children “were watching television when he said good-bye to them for the last time“, and creating what is clearly a tragic moment in retrospect. I suppose Rowling’s logic was that people would already know Barry was going to die since she revealed it in the summary and interviews, but still, this chapter would be absolutely perfect if Barry’s death did come as a complete “casual vacancy” to us just as it does to the characters, without it being revealed to us through the prose beforehand. (This chapter, at least, is very similar to Kay Eiffel’s fictional novel, even down to the omniscient narrator prose which is just as annoying here as I imagined it would be there. Also, I always had the feeling Kay wouldn’t be able to create a whole book out of this in real life.)
But really that’s the one very, very important change I would make in this chapter. It’s done very, very well, and it creates such paranoia in us. What if our headaches turned out to be so, so much more serious? I think I’ve developed one now just worrying about it. We can almost hear the preacher from Pollyanna screaming, “DEATH COMES UNEXPECTEDLY!”
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.
Brilliant prose, but poor Barry. Why couldn’t he get a painless death like Cedric Diggory? Just imagine how much pain you would have to be in already not to notice the pain of your knees smashing into solid cement. Also, is this the first time she has ever shown us directly a dying character’s experience? The POV simply became the “omniscient narrator” when Frank died (which it does here, we aren’t actually let into Barry’s experience of actually dying, presumably because Rowling did not wish to offend either atheists or the religious community), and Cedric’s death was in Harry’s POV. (I haven’t read the final three Harry Potter books, though, but since they’re a second-person POV of Harry, I would assume we aren’t actually let in on the experience of anyone actually dying.
Just one more note: in England, the number of the police is 999? That’s so sensible, why don’t we have that over here? I’ve always wondered why the number isn’t 111, besides to create tension in countless horror movies, of course. (One drawback: That doesn’t work nearly as well in British horror movies, does it?)
Also, Barry died in his own vomit. I pray that we all shall receive such dignified deaths.
Well, that’s it for now. Let me know in the comments what you thought of the first chapter of J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel (which isn’t too adult so far), The Casual Vacancy.