Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
J. K. Rowling is known the world over for her wonderful Harry Potter series, one of the great morality tales of the last hundred years and the books that brought children back to reading.  She is a fitting companion to Tolkien and Lewis.  She is the deserving recipient of numerous prestigious literary awards and charitable causes and could rest easily on her laurels:  instead, she has produced her first adult novel, eagerly awaited by us all.
And it was hugely disappointing – at least for me.
We are in the land of the Muggles now.  There is no magic to transform us and bear us away to the delights and frights of Hogwarts;  there is not a vestige of humour to leaven the bleakness of Ms. Rowling’s plot or the singular nastiness of her characters;  everyone to a man (or woman) is morally bankrupt, and proud of it, and the ending is as tragic as the beginning.
Local counsellor Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm in the car park of the Pagford Golf Club, where he and his wife were about to have dinner to celebrate their 19th wedding anniversary.  His shocking and unexpected demise means that there will now be a vacancy on the Pagford Parish Council, run as a mini-fiefdom by Howard Rollison, the local Deli owner.  He prides himself that he is the nearest thing to a mayor that pretty, picturesque Pagford has, and as soon as he installs his son Miles as Barry’s replacement they can both carry the vote to rid the village of the financial responsibility of The Fields, a dreadful housing estate that encroaches their borders, thanks to a land deal of fifty years before.  The Fields is full of lay-abouts, losers and junkies, and the particular eyesore that Howard wants to be rid of is the Addiction clinic which, because it is within their rural boundary, is Pagford’s expense to bear.  Howard never liked Barry anyway (because Barry was a product of The Fields);  good riddance to bad rubbish.
Howard is shocked to find that several other people, all for different reasons,  are eying the vacancy as well and have put themselves up for candidacy.   The ensuing election battle is the main impetus of the story, pitting various factions against each other and revealing secrets and sorrows that should have stayed hidden. 
The late counsellor Fairbrother is revealed as being more of a positive influence on everyone than at first thought, especially when his surviving friends and neighbours prove themselves to be much the lesser when it comes to the crunch of filling his very big shoes – not just on the council, but as a mentor to the local youth, particularly those from The Fields.  This is a very negative book – not because it is poorly written, (how could it be?  Ms Rowling has proved her literary credentials time and again) but because she doesn’t give the reader any hope that the bleak literary portrait she paints will ever change. 
Hope:  that vital and most cherished human emotion – the reader needs to feel hopeful of a better outcome in this story as much as in real life;  what a shame Ms Rowling doesn’t allow us that privilege.  Maybe it’s me and my yen for happy endings, but give me Hogwarts and its denizens any old time, for  Ms Rowling’s Muggles aren’t nice to be near.

Live by Night, by Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane has written many novels, several of which have been successfully filmed.  He centres his stories mainly in Boston, Massachusetts and has always created great characters and great plots.  ‘Live by Night’ is a loose sequel to ‘The Given Day’, an epic tale of the First World War, the soldiers who returned and the police force they joined.  Racism and Baseball play a huge part in this fine book and it would be an advantage for the reader to read this first, if possible, but ‘Live by Night’ can stand alone on its own merits.
Joe Coughlin is twenty years old when this story begins.  He is the youngest son of one of the most respected and prosperous senior police officers in the city of Boston, and he hates his father. His two older brothers have long since fallen out with their martinet parent and left home;  his mother has died, and Joe has happily turned to a life of crime – partly to spite his old man, but also because he likes it.  He doesn’t class himself as a gangster;  he’s an outlaw, a euphemism which has a better ring to it;  it’s 1926, Prohibition is in full swing and there are myriad opportunities to make piles of money from this absurd law as a bootlegger for speakeasies: Joe is thrilled with his circumstances and feels even better that his father, who knows everything that transpires in Boston, is aware that he has a successful criminal – sorry, outlaw – for a son.
Yep, Joe is a is a Twelve O’Clock Fella in a Nine O’Clock Town;  he lives by night, and the night has even more appeal when he meets Flora Gould, a very shady young lady whose hunger for thrills matches his own.  Unfortunately, she is the mistress of a real gangster called Albert White.  Albert is averse to sharing his mistress with Joe and in short order Joe’s life turns sour:  through a series of  unfortunate events he endures a terrible beating, hospitalisation, the loss of his great love and an eventual stint in prison, the sentence of which is reduced thanks to his father calling in some favours.
Like it or not, Joe  should now be repenting at leisure.  His father Thomas, despite his supposed neglect of his youngest has sacrificed his promotion to help his boy survive in prison with a shorter sentence;  all that matters to him now is that his son come out of the dreaded Charlestown Penitentiary alive.  Joe, far from repenting (he’s only sorry that he got caught) devotes his energies and considerable intelligence to surviving attacks from within – and without, eventually forming a long-term alliance with a mafia man, Maso Pescatore.  Ah, the road to Hell takes many forms, and Joe’s journey covers a lot of ground before the eventual showdown and fight to the death:  this is a classic tale of winning it all but losing everything in the process, and Mr Lehane tells it beautifully.  He is a master of suspense and snappy dialogue;  his research is impeccable;  he creates atmosphere and times without any discernible effort and I defy any reader to finish any of his books, then decide not to read another one.  Highly recommended.   

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