Archives for posts with tag: themes

As I said in the last review, Markus Zusak/Death has basically laid out a blueprint for the closing of this part, so what will be interesting in reading these four is to see how Zusak plays with my expectations and how he fills in the gaps in what I’ve managed to figure out so far.

Some information I admittedly am not supposed to know at this point, such as the fact that Liesel will be stealing from the Mayor’s library, which I read on the back cover. This could be intuited, however, by the fact that every part is named after a book important to it, and this part, titled “the whistler,” opens with the image of a book floating in the river in December 1941. I have most of the events of the final chapter worked out in my head. Viktor Chemmel will steal the book from Liesel and throw it in the river out of revenge, and Rudy will go in to rescue it. Why, however, Liesel and Rudy will be stealing this particular book, and what happens in between these two events, is yet to be discovered.

Before diving into any of that, however, Chapter 5 of Part Five opens with

SKETCHES

As much as I feel more positive about this chapter than I was about the last,
I have to start this review off with a criticism.

If the summer of 1941 was walling up around the likes of Rudy and Liesel, it was writing and painting itself into the life of Max Vandenburg.

I know this is obviously an attempt at another metaphor by Zusak, but I have read this over several times and have no clue what it means. It could mean that the summer is closing in on them and appearing to be more threatening now, but the choice of words is still, frankly, confusing, and that’s as best as I can work it out.

This may not be important, however, because this chapter does return to one of the important themes in the book, the power of words:

In his loneliest moments in the basement, the words started piling up around him. The visions began to pour and fall and occasionally limp from out of his hands.

This time, Zusak puts an emphasis on how those words can be transformed not into visual metaphors that create a picture in your head, but literal sketches. Obviously, we have already seen something similar in The Standover Man, but the two sketches we see differ in that they do not add up to tell a cohesive story necessarily, but rather are an exercise in surrealism and visual imagery. They are so surreal, however, that I’m grateful Zusak does give some insight into Max’s thought process in creating them:

It was a collection of random thoughts and he chose to embrace them. They felt true. They were more real than the letters he wrote to his family and to his friend Walter Kugler, knowing very well that he could never send them. The desecrated pages of Mein Kampf were becoming a series of sketches, page after page, which to him summed up the events that had swapped his former life for another.

While Max is asleep, Liesel comes down and finds the book leaning against him and glimpses 2 of the sketches. The two we see are so strange and disturbing that I am glad Death did explicitly mention that they were representations of Max’s own experiences, because otherwise they appear to simply be exercises in surrealistic black comedy. The second sentence quoted here, however, offers another parallel between Max and Liesel that I am glad Death doesn’t spell out this time. Liesel was able to write letters to her real mother in the hope against hope that she might receive them, while Max writes letters to his family knowing that he can never even send them, as long as the war is ongoing.

But as to the sketches, both occupy a full page and the first one shows an actually fairly detailed pencil sketch of Hitler standing on top of his podium appearing to lead a crowd of onlookers seen only from the back in a Nazi salute, except that a speech buble comes from Hitler’s mouth containing musical notes. The subtitle underneath reads “Not the Führer- the conductor!” The implication here is strange, but appears to be that Hitler used his words like music to entrance the German public, which is what led Max to be persecuted.

The second sketch shows two figures standing atop a large clump of dead bodies with one, a girl, saying “Isn’t it a lovely day…” as they stare up at a sun which flashes both its rays and a swastika at them. This one, despite being yet more surreal, is easier to interpret, as the two figures are likely intended to represent Max and Liesel, who cling to the small pieces of happiness and joy that come their way, despite the fact that they live in Nazi Germany, in the middle of a war that leaves more and more bodies piling up every day.

Liesel, on the other hand, is a bit too young to grasp the intricacies of black comedy, which is why Max never intended to show the sketches to her at this age, and the chapter ends when Liesel hides from an awakening Max the fact that she was reading the book and goes up the stairs thinking:

You scared me, Max.

This probably is not meant just to illustrate Liesel’s lack of understanding of black comedy, though, but rather the fact that at her young age she is unwilling to even admit that they are finding joy in a world filled with great horror or perhaps even to admit that their world has been so overtaken by horrors. The sketch is important, though, in that it represents what Liesel and Max really are doing, and the horrifying reality is that there is actually nothing wrong with that, except for the sad truth that these precious nuggets of happiness will likely grow harder and harder to come by as the war goes on.

THE WHISTLER AND THE SHOES

Death begins this chapter by acknowledging that all the events that have been described in this part form part of a cycle, or routine, and thankfully summarizes it to get to the point where the routine is finally broken:

It’s also worthy of mention that every pattern has at least one small bias, and one day it will tip itself over, or fall from one page to another. In this case, the dominant factor was Rudy.

This is an interesting theory, although in this case it seems clear that the reason Rudy will soon be more important to the narrative is to add more development to his character, since he has been marked to die.

Death again paints a picture of Rudy wandering down Himmel Street filthy,
having been forced to perform extra Hitler Youth drills in a field, this time carrying his shirt which has been covered in not mud this time, but rather…

“The field at Hitler Youth just got fertilized.” He gave his shirt another halfhearted, disgusted appraisal. “It’s cow manure, I think.”
“Did what’s-his-name-Deutscher-know it was there?”
“He says he didn’t. But he was grinning.”

I appreciate that Zusak is trying to show us that Rudy’s exploits at the Hitler Youth will become more important, but for now all this serves is a rather weak motivation for Liesel to get back into book thievery.

After a moment’s thought, he raised his head, just a touch. “Look at me. I’m filthy. I stink like cow shit, or dog shit, whatever your opinion, and as usual, I’m absolutely starving.” He paused. “I need a win, Liesel. Honestly.”
Liesel knew.
She’d have gone closer but for the smell of him.
Stealing.
They had to steal something.

This seems so childish and petty the only thing that comes close to redeeming it, apart from the fact that Liesel and Rudy are children, is the fundamental innocence and weakness of these two characters, especially at this moment in time.

One of my commentators attempted to defend Liesel and Rudy for stealing in the past by arguing that they only committed their crimes out of “a desire to control something” at an age and in a place where they would otherwise have no control. This point in the book seems to illustrate that point well, but even though they hem-and-haw for nearly two pages about where to steal from and what to steal, it’s obvious this is always going to come back to Liesel stealing the book from the Mayor’s wife, despite having rejected it when it was offered to her.

At that very moment, Liesel was presented with a decision. Could she truly carry out what she was thinking? Could she really seek revenge on a person like this? Could she despise someone this much?

I was hoping to get a lot more insight into Liesel’s thought process and her contemplations of whether or not to take the book than what we do get here, but the real problem is that the book treats it like it’s a real defining moment of Liesel’s morality. When really that moral turning point for her already came when she made the decision to castigate and shame the Mayor’s wife. What Liesel’s doing is indeed petty, but it’s not a petty act of revenge or even something hurtful. It’s a petty act of saying “Alright, changed my mind.” Nothing more and nothing less.

There is a brief fake-out where Rudy and Liesel get to the Mayor’s house and find the library’s window has been locked, and it appears Liesel’s plan for revenge will not come to fruition, but no. They steal nothing else, just come back a week later and the window is open. No time is spent on Liesel and Rudy trying to work out other ways to get into the house, and Rudy doesn’t even bring up the possibility of simply stealing somewhere else, even though he’s the one who came up with the idea of stealing something and he has no personal vendetta against the Mayor’s family.

No, the repugnant truth was this:
She didn’t care about the food. Rudy, no matter how hard she tried to resist the idea, was secondary to her plan. It was the book she wanted.
 The Whistler. She wouldn’t tolerate having it given to her by a lonely, pathetic old woman. Stealing it, on the other hand, seemed a little more acceptable. Stealing it, in a sick kind of sense, was like earning it.

I’m trying to understand Liesel’s motivations here, and while incredibly petty, this at least makes some sense. I haven’t stolen much of anything in my life, so I can’t relate to this, but it seems her morality has been warped by the constant stealing for Berg (and now Chemmel)’s gang, as well as the two previous occasions on which she stole a book, which were approved of by Hans, so that now she believes stealing a book is the most pure form of obtaining one. It’s childish, and frankly a bit disgusting, but what really strikes me as abhorrent isn’t Liesel’s desire to steal, or even her selfish motivations that have nothing to do with helping her friend feel better, but the fact that she has such contempt for a woman for being depressed and emotionally scarred by the death of her son, and continues to project her own insecurities onto her. And I’m not sure if Zusak wants us to see it that way, either.

They laughed nervously for a moment before going through the motions of who should go in and who should stand watch. As the male in the operation, Rudy clearly felt that he should be the aggressor, but it was obvious that Liesel knew this place. It was she who was going in. She knew what was on the other side of the window.
She said it. “It has to be me.”

And now I don’t even understand what Rudy has to gain from this. The Hitler Youth plotline provided such a slim motivation for this plotline, but now it feels like there’s nothing. Rudy didn’t mastermind this plan himself, and he’s not even the one breaking in to commit the theft, so how would this be a much-needed “win” for him? He doesn’t even seem to understand why Liesel is angry at the Mayor’s wife or to know about the book she tried giving away, as he still insists she look for food and cigarettes (because in that time period, cigarettes were apparently worth so much they were only valued less than food?) and if Liesel had stolen either of those items, this would be truly petty and despicable, since it would be something the Mayor and his family might actually miss.

There is a brief description of the sense of nostalgia and joy Liesel feels despite herself upon being inside the library again, but this would be more effective if it hadn’t been only 4 months since she was last in there. The narrative then quickly shifts to an attempt at tension, as Liesel can’t find the book on the shelf, and Rudy warns her of footsteps coming from upstairs, but this is resolved in 2 paragraphs as she then sees the book lying on the Mayor’s desk, grabs it, and jumps out the window again.

Once Rudy and Liesel get safely away from the house, Rudy notices the book and realizes what Liesel’s real plan was, but he doesn’t even get the chance to be angry at his friend for tricking him before Liesel notices that he left her shoes at the Mayor’s house, so Rudy runs back to get them. This feels unnecessary except to paint Rudy as an ideal friend and grant him one small victory (albeit only one of correcting his own mistake), but it does admittedly provide us with, in my opinion, the only genuine moment of tension in this chapter:

The minutes were heavy while he was gone.
Darkness was now complete and Liesel was quite certain that a
 Watschen was most likely in the cards when she returned home. “Hurry,” she murmured, but still Rudy didn’t still appear. She imagined the sound of a police siren throwing itself forward and reeling itself in. Collecting itself.
Still, nothing.

It doesn’t last long, as Rudy soon returns with the shoes and tries again to extort a kiss from Liesel, but I really did feel like I was there with Liesel in the dark, experiencing genuine fear and tension about Rudy and whether or not their crime would be discovered. And I do genuinely like the rest of the chapter, now that the conflict has been resolved and it winds itself to a close. Zusak managed for the first time in a while to paint an image of a scene in my mind, and it genuinely feels like we’re seeing two real friends quietly having a conversation with each other. This passage, in particular, is a very nice human detail:

“Speaking of which, I think we’re both slightly in for it when we get home. You especially.”
“Why me?”
“You know-your mama.”
“What about her?” Liesel was exercising the blatant right of every person who’s ever belonged to a family. It’s all very well for such a person to whine and moan and criticize other family members, but they won’t let
 anyone else do it. That’s when you get your back up and show loyalty.

This is so beautifully true it really is a rare instance here of wonderful, human writing, and it doesn’t feel like Zusak, in fact. It feels more like a passage that, if modified, could easily belong to a much different writer like C.S. Lewis.

Zusak also paints a picture of Rudy from Liesel’s 3rd-person POV that describes how he has been growing and changing with age very vividly, reminding me of several of Rowling’s descriptions in The Casual Vacancy. It creates a much stronger portrait of him, in fact, than the literal “Portrait of Rudy Steiner, July 1941” we got earlier, and manages much more to imbue us with the sad realization that he will die before he has the chance to truly age, so that in a way Rudy is close now to being as old as he ever will be.

The chapter ends with Rudy and Liesel returning to their separate houses and reminiscing about the old days of last year when Berg was running their gang, and it really does feel like another precious pocket of humanity like the one we got with Liesel and Hans at the end of “The Gamblers,” and moments like this really are much needed.

As we’re both aware, she’d stolen books previously, but in late October 1941, it became official. That night, Liesel Meminger truly became the book thief.

And yet I can’t help but feel that even if the Mayor’s wife had caught Liesel in the act of stealing her book, she would have simply frowned stoically and allowed (if not encouraged) Liesel to climb back out the window with it. Combining that with the fact that only one of the three stolen books would be missed, I hear Remy’s father in Ratatouille explaining to his son that “It isn’t stealing if no one wants it.” And the voice of another little rat shouting back, “If no one wants it, why are we stealing it?”

THREE ACTS OF STUPIDITY BY RUDY STEINER

What’s strange about this book is how often it can seem like a series of vignettes loosely tied together, and this chapter in particular feels a bit like a short story detailing a few misadventures of Rudy. However, Death’s statement that Rudy was the “dominant factor” in the book’s pattern of events is now proving itself to be true as it becomes clear now this entire part has revolved around Rudy in some way, from the knowledge of his untimely death to his conflicts with Deutscher in the Hitler Youth and Chemmel in the apple-stealing gang, to his endless attempts to extort a kiss out of Liesel, all of which is tied together in these last two chapters.

The chapter begins with Death, as he often does, giving us a blueprint of the chapter to come:

***RUDY STEINER, PURE GENIUS***
1. He stole his biggest potato
from Mamer’s, the local grocer.
2. Taking on Franz Deutscher
on Munich Street.
3. Skipping the Hitler Youth
meetings altogether.

One problem I have with the scene to follow is that there is very little description, and the description we do get is confusing. Death throws us into the scene at Mamer’s with Rudy attempting to steal a potato with no physical description of the store to allow us to picture it. When the owner, Mamer, confronts Rudy over his attempted theft, Zusak writes that Mamer was “still holding Rudy by the collar” despite never stating he was holding him by the collar to begin with, and tells us 2 paragraphs later that he “held Rudy in one hand and the potato in the other,” even though the last we had heard, “the potato was still in Rudy’s hands (he couldn’t hold it in just the one)” and Death never mentions Mamer taking it from him, which creates unseen jumps in time that are awkward and break up the narrative.
As for my thoughts on the section as a whole, there is brief tension as Mamer threatens to call the police on Rudy, but he is then forced to rely on pity to get him out of this situation, as he begs his schoolteacher to tell the grocer how poor he is to guilt-trip Mamer into letting him go. It works, and it’s another small redeeming moment for humanity, but what I found noteworthy is this line:

He was in the percentage of teachers at school who were not priests or nuns.

I felt a bit guilty for being hard on religion when discussing the corporal punishment administered at Liesel’s school, but it seems clear that Zusak, despite keeping this book fairly neutral in terms of belief, as I mentioned earlier, seems to share those feelings of religious distrust. (The only other thing I found worth mentioning here was that Zusak uses the word “ejaculated” to stand in for “exclaimed”, which I didn’t think was possible for a writer to do any more, but Zusak might have chosen to use it due to the book’s period setting.)

And despite Death claiming at the start of the chapter that “the problem with Rudy’s first act was greed,” I think what this whole chapter of the story really illustrates is instead Rudy’s rebellious, impulsive and impetuous nature, and how it gets him into trouble as Rudy tries to secure petty victories to boost his self-esteem, only to inevitably end up digging himself further and further down.

Death sums this misadventure of Rudy Steiner up well:

For Rudy, it was yet another failure.

From there, the narrative moves to Rudy’s second act of stupidity, with Death spoiling for us that he “would finish this particular altercation with a black eye, cracked ribs and a haircut,” which shows his luck will not be improving, obviously, but braces us for what is to come. The incident Death describes first with Rudy in the Hitler Youth seems to further my theory that Rudy’s problems are mostly caused by his rebelliousness, however, when Deutscher asks him the Hitler Youth’s favorite question:

“When was our Führer, Adolf Hitler, born?”
Rudy looked up. “Sorry?”
The question was repeated, and the very stupid Rudy Steiner, who knew all too well that it was April 20, 1889, answered with the birth of Christ. He even threw in Bethlehem as an added piece of information.

What’s worth noting is that Rudy, unlike Liesel, has no personal reason to hate the Nazi regime at this point, so the book isn’t trying to show a 13-year-old as being better than his time, which I appreciate, as it’s clear this act of rebellion is motivated by his disdain for Deutscher, not Hitler himself. Which is further drilled in when we get to Rudy’s actual “second act of stupidity”:

On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FUCKING SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

But in all honesty, even for an act of stupidity, this act is so shocking and blatantly pointless that Death himself again interrupts to respond to me:

You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is, probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity. Either that, or the very sight of Franz Deutscher gave him the urge to destroy himself.

Well, yeah, no shit, Sherlock… but this honestly is one of the few moments it felt like Zusak was deliberately making a character act in a certain way just to create conflict, rather than as something that grew organically out of the narrative. However, given Rudy’s established impulsive and rebellious nature, combined with the fact that he is 13, I’m willing to excuse this, and what’s important is not only does this fail to secure a “win” for Rudy, it also results in his worst humiliation yet. As you could imagine, Deustcher doesn’t take too kindly to this, so he responds by savagely attacking Rudy, throwing him into the pavement three times, giving him the aforementioned black eye and cracked ribs. Unlike the earlier scene where Liesel beats up the two boys, there is nothing fun or gratifying about reading this, and it’s one of the most uncomfortable scenes to read in the whole book, especially if you imagine Deutscher is a few years older than Rudy, yet he still has no problem beating the fucking shit out of him as if he’s even a fair match. There’s even a moment where he pulls a knife on Rudy, and even though we know Rudy will only receive a haircut and he won’t die for another 2 years, it’s still only natural to expect the worst. And Deutscher concludes this humiliation by asking Rudy the question of Hitler’s birthday again:

And Rudy?
How did he reply?
Did he respond prudently, or did he allow his stupidity to sink himself deeper into the mire?
He looked happily into the pale blue eyes of Franz Deutscher and whispered, “Easter Monday.”

This again brings me back to the meditation on cowardice earlier in the book, as this is one of the few stupid acts committed by Rudy that could be considered genuinely brave, as he refuses to allow Deutscher the satisfaction of giving in to him. Deutscher has given Rudy the only position of power he can have, the power to defy him, and Rudy is more than willing to take it, and yet just as Hans only survived WWI due to his aforementioned “cowardice”, one can’t help but feel the sane, sensible reaction in terms of self-preservation would be to simply give Deutscher the complete satisfaction that he wants, but instead Rudy gets a haircut in addition to his humiliation and Zusak makes an annoyingly unnecessary parallel of this haircut, as an act of forced humiliation by an enemy, to the haircut Max received from Liesel earlier in the year, as an act of genuine friendship (unnecessary in that again the audience is more than capable of making this parallel ourselves).

As for Rudy, so far this year he’d swallowed mud, bathed himself in fertilizer, been half-strangled by a developing criminal, and was now receiving something at least nearing the icing on the cake-public humiliation on Munich Street.

Seriously, at first, it may have been shocking that Rudy died so young, but now I can’t help but feel he was lucky to make it this long. Is he really going to survive another TWO YEARS????? Because I have made it my whole life without experiencing any of those things (with the possible exception of public humiliation).

The chapter does, however, manage to leave Rudy on a bit of a positive note, as his third act of stupidity, skipping the Hitler Youth meetings, turns out to be the only one of these acts to exhibit any common sense or leave him in a better position. (“It was the one time in his life that his idiotic behavior delivered beneficial results.”) True, it’s a dangerous thing to do in this time period, but it also ensures he will avoid being in this stressful environment and risk any more hostile interactions with Deutscher. And ultimately, his brother convinces him to join a different division of the Hitler Youth, which teaches aircraft and flying, and the chapter ends with the suggestion that Rudy has experienced some genuine character growth, and in addition to being in a better place, is beginning to mature and accept what he can and cannot get away with:

In his new division, whenever he was asked the famous Führer question, Rudy would smile and answer, “April 20, 1889,” and then to Tommy, he’d whisper a different date, like Beethoven’s birthday, or Mozart’s, or Strauss’s. They’d been learning about composers in school, where despite his obvious stupidity, Rudy excelled.

It helps he doesn’t have a figure like Deutscher to challenge him here, but the last sentence adds a layer of depth in suggesting the difference between book smarts and street smarts, Rudy perhaps possessing more of the former than the latter, something I have to admit I can relate to myself.

THE FLOATING BOOK (Part II)

So now the part ends, right where it began, as you can tell from the title. And I honestly have little to say about this chapter, because everything mostly plays out exactly as I had predicted it would. The opening sentence even mentions that it is December, and Rudy will finally secure a victory, so it’s pretty clear what will happen next.

Liesel and Rudy are going home from school, and there is a small bit of misdirection as they have to avoid Franz Deutscher, but it’s pretty clear there’s not much more he can do to Rudy after having beaten and humiliated him in public already, so this isn’t too convincing, and…

With no further words, Liesel followed him, and they successfully avoided Rudy’s tormentor-straight into the path of another.

They predictably run into Viktor Chemmel and his group on the bridge, and one complaint I have about this is that the action doesn’t feel like it’s playing out naturally. We know everything that is going to happen, and the characters seem to basically act as marionettes, being pulled around by invisible strings and made to do exactly what Zusak wants them to and be exactly where he wants them to be. How likely is it, really, that Viktor and Deutscher would both randomly be wandering around Molching within the same vicinity of each other on the same day, for instance? It’s possible, but it feels contrived.

Viktor greets them by randomly calling Liesel a whore again (big surprise) and taking the book. He offers to sell it back to them for fifty marks, but as Andy Schmeikl points out, they could buy any number of books for that amount (including the same one he took) so this extortion attempt is beyond idiotic. He could also point out that Liesel and Rudy probably don’t have that much money even if they wanted to give it to him, but he doesn’t.

“Did I ask you to speak?”
Andy kept quiet. His mouth seemed to swing shut.

Markus Zusak, have you ever heard this saying before? “If you want respect, you must give respect to get it.” If this whole group is so spineless and cowardly they’re willing to acquiesce to the every demand of this rich prick who gives them no respect, how are they effective thieves who are willing to risk being chased by angry farmers with axes, anyway?

Liesel tried a poker face. “You can keep it, then. I’ve already read it.”
“What happens at the end?”
Damn it!
She hadn’t gotten that far yet.

Well, neither has Viktor, so I’m sure any lie she could come up with would sound convincing, but it doesn’t really matter. For as much as Zusak built up Viktor’s patience in getting back at Rudy, it seems clear he had no plan of exacting revenge against him at all, and spent none of those five months formulating one. He knows Rudy will be pained at seeing his friend intimidated and losing her book because of him, but that doesn’t change the fact that as Rudy points out, this act of revenge isn’t really against him at all, as it’s not his book, so Viktor is basically just impulsively being a prick. It’s not like the group is going to fall into submission after seeing Viktor take action against a person who didn’t question his authority. He’s just pointlessly harassing another member of the group who did nothing against him.

Stranger still is that Zusak never mentions Viktor and his gang leaving after he throws the book into the river, yet Rudy immediately runs down to retrieve it without even waiting for them to go. Inexplicably, Viktor makes no attempt to go after Rudy and stop him from getting it, either. (Also, tearing the book up and throwing the pages in one-by-one would have been more effective, and more of a prolonged punishment, as Rudy would have had to watch his friend’s prized property be destroyed for God knows how long.) He just vanishes from the narrative into a black hole, to wait until the next time it needs him to be a dick.

Another note of interest is that Rudy did not attempt to leave the devastatingly cold water as soon as he held the book in his hand. For a good minute or so, he stayed. He never did explain it to Liesel, but I think she knew very well that the reasons were twofold.

I would think the reason would obviously be to make sure Viktor isn’t hiding somewhere, waiting for the opportunity to ambush him and throw the book back in, but no. Zusak explains the real reason is he wants to revel in his victory and make himself appear pitiful and selfless, so Liesel will kiss him. But obviously she won’t, and Zusak does fittingly leave us on the tragic note he was building to all along:

He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.

That really is a good place to leave the book. I enjoyed this project (especially when I had readers) and I liked reading the book, too, and it’s possible I’ll finish the rest of the book on my own, but we’ve made it halfway through and I think ending on this note of dramatic irony is very fitting. I don’t know how long it will take me to finish the book if I keep dragging the project out, and seeing as how my readers have lost interest, I think it’s clear all good things must come to an end. To the few who enjoyed these posts, I say thank you. I hope you enjoyed revisiting the book as experienced by another person and getting to know my personality through my reviews. I don’t know if I will write any more reviews on here, but I say again, goodbye.

 

 

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My feelings about writing this post are very strange and difficult to put into words. I wanted to have this blog updated daily, but due to Rowling’s long, long parts and my damnable laziness, it took me nearly three months to finish it. And yet oddly enough it feels like such a short time ago that I set out on this journey. And now it has come to an end, and to be honest, I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to finish this journey. And yet operating this blog has given me such a great deal of stress, and I want to get this post up before the end of the year. To be honest, I think that’s why I don’t want to finish this post. Because of that stress, that I feel that I have such a huge obligation to write the greatest post I have ever written. This is why I will not be writing a “wrapping up” section, as Daniel has done, as it would imply that I felt all my other posts to be inferior, when I poured effort into them and I feel that some of my best work is in them. And I am not going to post readings of any more books. This is the last post of my blog, period. This project has caused me a great deal of stress. To be honest, the only reason I am completing this is because Daniel requested that I continue the posts way back when I was having trouble posting “Tuesday“. Other than him, I have not even the reward of readers.

I realize I have put a great deal of negativity into this post and now my entire blog series in general, in retrospect. And I do not want anyone to believe that I did not enjoy reading this book. I did. For months leading up to this book anticipation built up inside of me. I read the full profile of Rowling by The New Yorker a day or two before the book was released, and I went out and bought it with my own money on opening day.

And now I have finished reading it. We have reached the end of our journey. The Casual Vacancy is complete.

And so we should ask ourselves: What was the main point of this novel? How do those themes come across in the novel? Has Rowling given her first adult novel a satisfactory conclusion?

The book was advertised as a political novel, and I expected and anticipated humorous political scheming and debates, but one thing that surprised and disappointed me about the novel was that the election really wasn’t important at all. It only served in the background to further the characters’ plots. And in this final part, with the election long won, it is the characters’ plots that must be resolved.

The resolution of Shirley & Howard‘s storyline opens the chapter (the part is divided into four sections, but for once they are not numbered, perhaps so that people would read the part straight through in one sitting). Many nay-sayers may critique Rowling for creating drama with an event that was not taking place for the first time but here is a difference. Howard made a quick recovery last time. Now he has regained consciousness but is still at the hospital in critical condition. He has not said a word about Shirley running out with the needle. Rowling seems to imply that the surgery has made Howard unable to sexually perform so Shirley is no longer angry over the affair, but I wish she would be more clear on this.

Samantha & Miles‘ storyline ends in a similar way. The tragedy of Howard’s second heart attack has brought Miles and Samantha back together as well. Rowling wrote in her first novel, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them“. It’s clear this is her personal philosophy (see Andrew’s friendship with Gaia and Sukhvinder), but I’m not sure I entirely believe it myself. I could see a temporary pact being made during a tragedy, but I believe it would generally end once the tragedy has finished. It is ridiculous to me that merely the shared experience and concern would cause Samantha to suddenly love Miles to the point that she “had made love the previous night, and she had not pretended that he was anybody else“. However, I know that Samantha did have love for Miles at first, and it was a good move for Rowling to have her say earlier she wasn’t sure whether she loved him or not (although this feels like an editor’s trick, given all the feelings we’ve seen of hers before; the feeling from her should have been incorporated then), so the philosophy isn’t completely implausible in how it plays out here, though I have strong issues with it.

But another very interesting part of Samantha’s personal storyline is that the tragedy of Robbie’s death also changed Samantha in another, far more plausible way. After seeing what all happened as a result of Terri’s drug problems and a feeling of personal guilt over not saving Robbie and thus Krystal as well, she decides to join the council to try to prevent the addiction clinic from being closed. This change is very real to me and I like it, particularly because it adds a large touch of happiness to this very sad ending, which the revelation that Dr. Jawanda has gone through with her resignation does, as well, as it means Colin will be co-opted onto the council.

Andrew & Gaia‘s storyline ends happily, too, for both of them. Gaia is moving back to London as she wanted Andrew is moving to Reading and will be able to see Gaia when she visits, and perhaps this relationship will form though the feelings prior revealed that Gaia has of Andrew (“She was worth much more than Fats Wall, she knew that. If it had even been Andy Price, she would have felt better about it.”) make this somewhat unlikely. But there is hope for him, unlike

Gavin, whose storyline ends in humiliating failure, as he has burned every bridge he had, and has been left with no one, making a vain attempt to make amends with Kay only to be hung up on scornfully.

Fats‘ storyline ends merely with him finally having seemingly given up on his authentic lifestyle. Tessa attempts to take him to Krystal and Robbie’s funeral to further cure this, but Colin is angry at her over the things she revealed to Fats on the ride home (Rowling, annoyingly enough, felt it necessary to have Tessa explain the reasons for her talk with Fats), so she goes simply with Andrew. But he is allowed the further blow of guilt when he looks out the window briefly as the funeral hearse passes by with the coffins out in front to see.

Another shocking twist comes as a result of Fats’ guilt. He confessed to his parents about having written the post about Colin, then proceeded to take credit for all the other posts, in an effort to get himself punished as severely as possible, as he felt he deserved.

Sukhvinder‘s storyline ends with her having seemingly gotten over her depression, which her parents have now realized (being doctors, it stands to reason they recognize cutting scars). It bothers me to realize that Rowling appears to have forgotten Sukhvinder’s desire to drown as she describes Sukhvinder as having been afraid in the water and wondering how long she would have been able to live. But maybe this is just another case of not stating it. She may have been implying that Sukhvinder was afraid of  death in the reality despite her abstract yearning of it, a feeling I know to be perfectly real and a great insight into people, and it would seem that the near drowning was the moment that made her fully realize it. It may be Rowling realizes the insights I do not and is not stating them so the audience and the critics can read them themselves, I’m not sure.

But the storyline resolution that runs through every other one in this section, the one that the book openly closes with, is that of the Weedons. When we are in Shirley’s perspective, she has been ranting about Krystal and Fats, that they caused Howard’s condition to worsen by delaying the paramedics by calling out two ambulances and creating confusion, and to be honest, she has a point. She and Maureen gossip about the imminent funeral.

Then when the story changes to Andrew (this part is divided into sections, but they are not numbered, merely marked by spaces, perhaps so that people would read it in one sitting, which worked in my case), Gaia is planning to go to the funeral and Andrew says he will be attending as well when he hears she is going, then we get a memory of Krystal from him. Then he is driven by Tessa to pick up Fats for the funeral, but as said previously they end up going without him.

Then the POV switches to Samantha, who sees them through the window and mistakes Andrew for Fats and is shocked and then quickly turns away when she realizes her mistake out of embarrassment over “the kissing incident”. We get her reflecting on whether she should go to the funeral (she decides no) and remembering Krystal.

The book closes after Kay and Gaia leave for the funeral, at the actual funeral which is described in vivid detail, and we are told of how Sukhvinder basically made all the arrangement. The book is deeply moving (in a happy way) in Sukhvinder’s devotion, and (in a very sad way) when we learn how Terri has reacted to losing both her children practically within an instant. She has lost all energy and vitality and fallen into a deep state of depression. We are told that “Sukhvinder had been frightened of her… it was like talking to a corpse“, and  at the funeral she “…seemed scarcely aware of where she was“. (The final sentence of the book is “Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes“.)

Then we are given the feelings of the characters gathered there, and then the POV stays with Sukhvinder, who first dwells on how the vicar is refusing to speak about who Krystal was, and then we are given another memory of her, this time from Sukhvinder. Krystal Weedon’s legacy is deeply rooted into this entire part, what people think of her and the person she was. What people think of her and how they remember her is the main theme that runs through the final part.

The final chapter does a very good job portraying the characters, and resolving their plots, and the characters’ plots were what this novel were what this book was all about, nothing more. This novel is basically “a story about nothing”. To describe what the story is actually about would be impossible, because it would mean describing all the characters’ plots and how intricately and cleverly they are intertwined.

Rowling stated that she wrote it for herself planning never to publish it, and this is easy to see. She clearly came up with these people and then she got caught up in their lives. It annoys me that the publishers have advertised this as a very high-brow book, when really it is just a silly comedy in the end, nothing more than a glimpse into life in this small town. The book is life in its essence, just a slice of life in this small town. Its ending continues this theme well, too: for some, the ending is happy. For others, it is sad. For Andrew, it is bittersweet. Rowling makes it clear to us both that he may never “get” Gaia and that Simon’s abuse has not ceased and that Andrew refuses to report it when given the chance. (All is mutable!)

This is not to say that it is a bad novel, though perhaps only due to Rowling’s motivations about writing it. But I will not say whether I think this book is good or bad. Whether you like this book or not ultimately does not prove that the book is either good or bad, but succeeds stupendously at proving the kind of person you are.  Any type of the typical critical review which aims to say whether the book is good or bad and such opinions presented by people in one’s life is entirely irrelevant and should be ignored.

Rowling does a good job portraying the morays of a small town in this part most notably but in the entire book, how the plot becomes town lore, how everyone in the “lore” develops a reputation from the people in the town, which, as I have said before, was also portrayed very well in the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Small towns and their ways seem to be a thing that Rowling is obsessed with, just like death.

There is significantly less death in this book than I expected and that critics had strongly implied there would be. Yet it is a theme deeply infused into the novel. Rowling was right that “the casual vacancy” would be the perfect title for the book, for it symbolizes death itself in many cases (Barry, Robbie, and Krystal’s).

But I can see the motivation behind naming her book “Consequences” as she had originally intended to, although they are less obvious than the reasons behind the final title. The book is largely centered around consequences:

. Simon loses his job and decides to drop out of the election in consequence of his criminal actions and abuse of his son. Sadly he gains a new job and does not receive legal consequences for his abuse. Rowling certainly does not claim life is perfect.

. All of the posts are of course in consequence to their subject’s behavior, but only Simon and Howard’s have any real effect.

. Gavin’s life is ruined in consequence to him being dishonest with Kay and then through being honest with Mary. And he is humiliated in consequence to attempting to reconcile with Kay.

. Dr. Jawanda is suspended from work in consequence of her outburst at Howard in the council meeting.

. Andrew too receives negative consequences for writing the post, in his beating by Simon and his brief sadness over leaving Pagford but also positive in his satisfaction over Simon losing his job and dropping out of the election.

. Sukhvinder cuts her wrists in consequence of Fats and her mother. Her parents become kind to her in consequence of discovering her cutting. The community views her as a heroine in consequence of her attempt to save Robbie.

. Howard’s affair is revealed in consequence to Patricia mentioning it to Andrew, who in consequence writes the post, also in consequence to Simon believing Howard wrote the post mocking him.

. The consequence of Howard’s unhealthy eating is that he has two heart attacks and closes the book in the hospital in critical condition.

. The consequence of Howard’s affair is that Shirley becomes resentful and tries to kill him. Another consequence of his heart attack is that he becomes unable to perform sexually and Shirley worries about him dying, thus she dwells no more on the affair.

. Same goes for Miles and Samantha for the latter.

. And the consequence of Fats’ lifestyle is obvious. His and Krystal’s irresponsibility caused a three-and-a-half-year-old child to die. And the consequences of Gavin, Samantha, and Shirley ignoring him are also obvious.

I could go on and on, but the justification has been proven, and really, when you think about it, all novels are about consequences. You can’t write a book without them!

And the symmetry of the novel is almost poetic. The most obvious is that the song “Umbrella”  is played at both Barry’s funeral and Krystal’s, and that Krystal does not attend Barry’s funeral and the children of Barry do not attend Krystal’s (as Mary disliked Krystal and dislikes that her grave will be near Barry’s). But there is more than that. The novel begins with a casual vacancy in a literal sense, and ends with a casual vacancy in a literal sense (though not in the final chapter). It also begins with a casual vacancy in the legal sense and ends with a casual vacancy in the legal sense, in the form of Dr. Jawanda’s resignation from the Parish Council.

It will be interesting to see what place this book has in history. Will it, in time, be remembered as a classic, genius work of literature, or as a mistake, an ungodly blemish on an otherwise dignified career? (Of course, the answer will be zilch if the Mayans’ forecast comes true at midnight!) And will my blog be discovered again? What shall become of it in history?

With these words, this blog is complete. To Daniel and any Internet dwellers lurking out in the darkness who dare not speak their name, I bid you farewell. I hope you enjoyed taking this trip with me.

Goodbye.