Some thoughts on ‘The Casual Vacancy’

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Last week, on a flight from Perth to Melbourne, I began reading The Casual Vacancy, a novel that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelves since I bought it a several years casual-vacancy-book coverago. I’d opened it a few times but then closed it and put it back on the shelf, so now I hoped that the three-and-a-half-hour flight might force me to get to grips with it. I’ll admit that as the seat-belt sign went off I wished I’d chosen something else for the journey, but ten minutes later I was wishing I’d started it sooner. The novel is set in the first decade of the 21st century but I was captivated by the recognition of so much that was familiar to me from living in a village near a small town in England from the 1950s to the eighties.   Initially the petty jealousies, snobbery and small mindedness alongside the sense of community, social responsibility and genuine good will seduced me, until I realised I was being drawn into something much darker.

The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy mix of the social paralysis of a Barbara Pym novel and a particularly bizarre episode of Midsomer Murders, where gruesome crimes, malicious plots, feuds and a brutal disregard for others pervades council meetings, sunny flower shows, refined afternoon teas and, of course, evenings in the local pub.

Rowling is the hugely successful author of the Harry Potter books, which have imbued a whole generation of children with a love of reading and brought pleasure to millions of adults. But while this, her first novel for adults, captures many of the aspects of the Potter books: the large cast of characters, the multiple plots which interlock, the breathtaking power of evil, it lacks the warmth, charm and humour of her earlier works. Unsurprising really as this was never touted as a book for children or teenagers, or even as a transition for younger fans pledging loyalty to a loved author. The Casual Vacancy is rich in the everyday ignorance, jealousy, small mindedness, selfishness and cruelty that can thrive within a small community riven with issues of class, and driven by ambition, avarice and the desire for self-aggrandisement. This is no Harry Potter, nor is there a canny Inspector Barnaby to deliver a satisfactory ending to restore rural harmony. Indeed the ending is somewhat melodramatic – macabre even. No winding up at the end of the day with a swift half, or a nice cup of tea.

This is Rowling’s version of the ‘state of England novel’ which goes back to Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, and more recently Blake Morrison’s South of the River, and John Lanchester’s Capital. The Casual Vacancy is a disturbing but fascinating read and it is not for the faint-hearted. The author’s anger and frustration is apparent especially in the insights it offers into the lives of teenagers.

For me it was reminder of the impact of a six-month stay in England in 2007, spent largely in the area in which I lived from the late 1940s until 1981 when I moved to Australia. While I had been back to England a couple of times for brief holidays, this was my first lengthy stay and one in which I was confronted with the past in a profoundly powerful way. My experience of living in a Sussex village, attending a local school and then secretarial college, of working behind the counter of the local shop and later pulling pints in the pub on weekends, getting my first job as a secretary and then as a reporter on a local paper, are the sorts of things young people are still doing there. They still go to the local youth club, cruise around on their bikes, play or watch the cricket matches, or ride along the lanes on a borrowed pony. They go dancing, fall in love, get married and divorced, have children, the cycle of life goes on, but somehow, while I was there for long enough to watch, listen and process what I saw and heard, I felt a change in the tenor of the places I knew and loved.

The territory wars, the frictions of class, the impact of money and the hostility between those who had it and those who didn’t, was striking and hard-edged. The jealousies and resentments, the ambition and lack of it, the sense of hopelessness and futility and the random acts of violence, all seemed harsher, more cruel and more common; the mistrust of outsiders more hostile. Rowling’s novel captured what I observed during that long stay. I felt dislike at the heart of the place, a yearning for how things used to be and a blunt acceptance that time had delivered bitterness and mistrust far more extreme than in my memory.   What I saw, back then in 2007, was largely what convinced me that I would never live in England again. Much as I loved it I realised I no longer really liked it.

I’m not suggesting that these sorts of changes have not happened in Australia in recent years, I know that they have – along with a whole lot more disturbing changes. But when you return to a place you have loved and trusted since childhood, and still sometimes think of as home, it is the clash of memory and nostalgia with contemporary reality that is so profoundly disturbing. It was the small things that I observed between individuals and groups of people, in communities and organisations, the way they spoke to and about each other, the harshness and hostility, and the overwhelming individual and national insularity, that had me swallowing the lump in my throat and turning away to disguise how close I was to tears.

Perhaps it was ever thus and perhaps years of separation simply provide clarity. But The Casual Vacancy crystalises all that I felt about England when I spent those six months in what I had thought was home. I don’t think this book is a great literary work, but it is a profoundly clever and insightful contemporary example of the state of the nation novel in the 21st century. I’m sure that many of you who, like me, came here from England, will have read this book and either loved or hated it. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant to you, tedious, or the nastiness, the profanities, the harsh realities and sheer bastardry of the characters, will have made you put it down unfinished. Perhaps you loved it and recommended it to friends.  I can understand all of that – reading can sometimes become so extraordinarily personal. Sometimes you read something that seems to be just what you need to help you sort out things that have been niggling for some time. This is what The Casual Vacancy has done for me.

At the same time as I was reading this I was watching the television coverage of Londoners turning out to help and support the occupants of the tower block so terrifying destroyed by fire. The appalling neglect of the safety and welfare of the residents was countered by the magnificent generosity of volunteers to who came with the essentials of food, clothing and shelter, and the courage of the fire and rescue crews. It seemed to symbolize the sprit of the Blitz, that sustained the British through the remaining years of the war. Coming so soon after the extraordinarily unexpected result of the recent UK election it was a reassuring reminder of what Britain can be, and what it could be again.

It’s that mix of past and present, light and dark, good and evil which is always so challenging, and which one always hopes will be drawn into balance.

If you are looking for a relaxing, uplifting read you won’t find it in The Casual Vacancy. But it is an engrossing and challenging book that provides intrigue, stark, dark humour and a thought-provoking dose of social realism.

It has made me want to re-read South of the River and Capital and I will write more about those books here when I’ve done so.

And the winners are…

Thank you to everyone who entered my competition to celebrate Mother’s Day – and there were a lot of you!  I’m pleased to announce the two winners are Christine Mole from Victoria and Sue Shatford who lives here in Western Australia. Your book bundles will be arriving in the post soon. I was delighted that both of you were so excited to win and really pleased to hear that Christine always shares my books with her 89 year old Mother. How apt for a Mother’s Day competition!

Look out for the next competition held late in the year.

Mothers day comp prize

Mother’s Day Competition

There was such a good response to the Christmas competition, that thought I’d do it again to celebrate Mother’s Day! I will be giving away a bundle of four signed copies of my books to two readers. The book bundle includes non-fiction and novels. I have also included my latest book – The Woman Next Door.

To enter the competition all you need to do is follow my blog, either as an existing follower or by joining it now.  To do that just go to my website www.lizbyrski.com and enter your email in the “Follow blog by email” field at the foot of any webpage, and click the “follow me” button.

If you already follow the blog – go to the Contact page of my website and fill out the form, putting the words “Mother’s Day” into the comment field.

Two winners will be chosen at random and contacted by email. The books will be posted to the winners. The competition closes at 5pm on Monday 8th May. Good luck!

Mothers day comp prize

Memorable Re-reads

Being grounded for weeks is horribly inconvenient but for me it has also offered the luxury of more time to read. At first it was really hard to concentrate, and I felt I could only read books I’d already read; anything new seemed too challenging. So I began with an old favourite Heat Wave by one of my favourite authors, Penelope Lively.

The central character and narrator is Pauline, a woman in late middle age who is spending the summer in a cottage in England next door to the cottage occupied by her daughter, Teresa, husband Maurice, and their son Luke. This new proximity gives Pauline a vantage point from which to study her daughter’s marriage, and particularly her son-in-law’s behaviour. The tension in this novel grows steadily and with painful realism to an unexpected and quite startling climax. Even reading it for the third time brought me up in goose bumps. Heat Wave is a Penguin Modern Classic.

From Penelope Lively I turned to another English writer, Jessica Francis Kane, whose novel The Report is a brilliant recreation of a true story from World War II London. Drawing on documents relating to the worst civilian disaster of the war, in which 173 men, women and children lost their lives in a crush that developed as they rushed to safety down the steps of the Bethnal Green underground air raid shelter, Jessica Kane has created a sensitive, thoughtful and gripping novel. This book is beautifully written and Kane’s fictional characters through whom the story is told are thoroughly convincing. The Report is published by Portobello Books.

Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River, first published in 1978, was one of the first Australian novels I read when I moved here from England in 1981. This book has always seemed like a true work of art to me. Anderson was awarded the Miles Franklin for Tirra Lirra, a remarkable achievement as the story is told in the voice of an elderly, childless woman, returning to the place of her childhood. Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote a terrific article in the Australian Book Review in 2015, in which she suggests that this, and Helen Garner’s first novel, Monkey Grip, which won the National Book Council Award in the same year, marked a turning point in Australian literature which was heavily male dominated at the time.

It was probably a mistake for me to re-read Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast, at a time when I couldn’t get to the shops to indulge my taste buds, even so it’s a delightful book and well worth a second read. Nigel Slater is an English food writer, journalist and broadcaster. For many years he has written on food for The Observer. He’s also a brilliant chef and has a delightfully ironic sense of humour. Toast is the story of his childhood relationship to food, his parents, his mother’s woeful cooking and following her death the arrival of his father’s new partner who cooks like a dream. They way he writes about the food of the sixties and seventies is amazingly evocative of the period, and his gentle, but occasionally biting, humour make this a real gem. He is quite tough on the members of his family and this is an honest and thoughtful memoir which provides a picture of childhood which will feel familiar to many in the same age group. Toast is published by Fourth Estate, and there is also a delightful film of the book available on DVD.

Grounded

It’s been a funny year so far – in fact funny is probably the wrong word – dangerous might be better. Yes, it seems to be developing into my year of living dangerously! It began with a fall in late February when I was on my way to a work meeting. I was ambushed by a small variation in floor level and tripped and fell onto my left arm. When I looked up it was into the faces of four horrified students who promptly rescued me. I’d forgotten how humiliating it can feel to fall over in a public place, especially when you can’t immediately scramble to your feet and brush it off with a laugh. The students were lovely and I was eventually restored to a vertical position and taken to the medical centre and then sent for an x-ray.

What seemed at first to be a torn ligament turned out two weeks later to be two fractures, one in my wrist, the other at the base of my thumb. I got that news as I was being admitted to hospital for emergency surgery for something apparently unrelated which developed quite suddenly and was extremely painful.

By the time I left the hospital a week later, I had my wrist and hand in a rigid cast, and needed a nursing service to look after the surgical wound for me for another week. Last week, thankful for the tireless help and support of friends and neighbours, I ventured out into the world again. Someone took me to get my hair cut – always a morale boost – and yesterday a friend took me out for coffee which seemed hugely exciting after being grounded for more than four weeks.

This morning, as I set off for a stroll with Toby I was reflecting on my good fortune in having such wonderful friends and neighbours, and also on the impact of falling at this age and that, despite feeling very much better, I knew I still had some way to go before I’d be fully recovered from the fall and the fractures, the infection that eventually lead to the surgery, the anesethetic, and the huge doses of antibiotics and pain killers. But it was a glorious WA morning: mild, sunny and still. Outside the house I stopped to talk to two women who also had a small dog, and then, in the moment when I went to step off the kerb to cross the road, Toby decided to go in the opposite direction and walked right in front of me. According to Ben, my neighbour, who witnessed this, it was like watching a slow motion movie as I dived over the dog and onto the road, the arm in the cast held high in the air so that I didn’t fall onto it!

Once again I was very lucky; Ben came running to help me as did several other people who were out for a morning walk. This time I just grazed my knees, elbows and chin, and here I am three hours later sitting in an armchair with my laptop writing this blog post. No real damage but – I feel as though I’ve been hit by a passing truck. Thirty, twenty, possibly even ten years ago I would have got up and carried on with my walk, but at this age I know this is another setback and that things ain’t what they used to be. I hope that in the past few weeks I’ve learned a little patience. I’ve certainly given myself more time to recover, and have not beaten myself up for needing that time. This is new to me. Getting up, getting on with it. Not making a fuss. Minimising pain and anxiety and pretending I am much better than I feel, has always been my response to injury and illness. Not these past weeks though, and not today and for the next few weeks. I have seen the flashing red light of caution and self-care and it has brought me to a halt. It’s forcing me to think again about what it means to be old, and what I need to do in order to take better care of myself in the future. I am done with being tough, done with declaring I’m okay when I am definitely not.

This has been a significant face-to-face with ageing time for me, which is why I decided to write about it. I realise that while for several years now I have been writing about accepting our age, embracing it, making the most of it, being comfortable with it and adjusting to it. I had not, until now, accepted the physical vulnerability of my age. Because my brain keeps bouncing back, and I still find it easy to think in new and challenging ways, and carry on working as both a writer and an academic, I kept expecting my body to do the same thing. Now I know it doesn’t, it can’t and won’t and I need to accept that and know that this too is part of ageing and I must work with it not against it.

Nothing awful has happened to me despite my lack of attention to physical aspects of ageing, but it could and it might. So from now on this will be my year of living slowly and with caution, and being kinder to myself. It may be the biggest challenge yet because it feels so self-indulgent, even feeble. But on the other hand I suspect I may get to like it! After all, being grounded, unable to drive and only able to type one-handed for several weeks has left me more time to read and re-read some wonderful books, so I’ll blog again about luxurious reading in the next few days.

Meanwhile stay well, stay vertical when possible, keep enjoying later life, and join me in having that ‘nice rest’ that my mother advocated from the age of fifty onwards, and clung to for the rest of her life!

Alberto Manguel

I was so excited to see that one of my favourite writers, Alberto Manguel, will be at the Perth Writers Festival later this month. Manguel was born in Argentina and was strongly influenced in his youth by Jorge Luis Borges. He’s a non-fiction writer and essayist, a great thinker and intellectual explorer, who writes so beautifully that really complex or abstract ideas become accessible and engrossing.

Manguel always defines himself as a reader rather than a writer, and he is fascinated by the connections between books and our bodies, libraries, politics, art and intellectual curiosity. His approach to books and reading is of reading as an integral part of life and humanity, and he weaves together anecdotes, fairy and folk tales, mysterious places and landscapes, history and politics with extraordinary wisdom and dexterity. My favourites among his books are A Reader on Reading and The Library at Night, but there are many more to choose from.

I’ve booked tickets for all three of his events and am particularly excited about the session in which he’ll be talking to Philip Adams about curiosity.

Here are a couple of my favourite Alberto Manguel quotes which articulate the way we relate to the world through our own stories, and how each reader reads a book in their own individual way. Both quotes are from A Reader on Reading. 

“We come into the world intent on finding narrative in everything, landscape, the skies, the faces of others, the images and words that our species create.”

“Through ignorance, through faith, through intelligence, through trickery and cunning, through illumination, the reader rewrites the text with the same words of the original but under another heading, re-creating it, as it were, in the very act of bringing it into being.

If you are in Perth check out the Manguel sessions and see if they interest you.

manguel-alberto

A Dangerous Innocence

a-dangerous-innocence

A Dangerous Innocence by Artemis Cooper

As my life calmed down towards the end of 2016 I was able to start reading some books I’ve been storing up for some time. The first was a recent biography of one of my favourite writers, Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose work I began reading in the late 1950s. My mother had started to introduce me to some of her favourite writers, passing her library books on to me before returning them. Howard’s first novel, The Beautiful Visit, was published in 1950 and I think I must have read it aged 15, in 1959. By that time I’d read many of Mum’s books and had long abandoned novels written for teenage girls.

I was entranced by the story of The Beautiful Visit, which explored the journey of a woman trying to find a place in the world when she had been raised for nothing except marriage. It seemed relevant to my own life and challenged me to think about when I wanted for my future. But I was also fascinated by the novel’s structure, although I couldn’t have articulated that at the time. The story is told in reverse time and recently re-reading it, with some years experience of writing fiction, I still marvel that Howard managed the complexity of that in a first novel.

In the intervening years I’ve read all Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels and some of her other work, including her autobiography, Slipstream, (2002). In that book I was amazed to discover the many parallels in the fiction and Howard’s own life. Childhood abuse, a stifling early marriage, thwarted ambition, and disastrous relationships with unsuitable men, all find their place in this novelist’s work, making her books involving, credible and so relevant to those of us who can see our own mistakes in her fiction and her life. This latest biography by Artemis Cooper, reinforces and adds to those links and I was once again gasping with recognition at these connections and at Howard’s skill in exploring these aspects of her life through fiction.

I have loved all her books, particularly the The Cazalet Chronicle, a series of five novels of the life of a large and rambling family which begins with The Light Years published in 1990 and commencing the narrative in 1937, and ends with the fifth volume, All Change, published in 2013, the year before Howard’s death aged 90.

Artemis Cooper is a sophisticated and sensitive biographer and in A Dangerous Innocence, she provides a warm and insightful picture of one of England’s best loved novelists of the 20th century, and a woman who battled endlessly with her own demons to find love in her own life and to bring the complexities of love in the lives of her characters to her readers. Don’t be mislead; Elizabeth Jane Howard never wrote trite love stories, but she explores the love of families, couples, children, siblings and, the love of life and the challenges of loss and disappointment and unfulfilled dreams, in truly engrossing fiction, which does not shy from the tough, often brutal realities of the ordinary life. To read this biography and be reminded again of the parallels with her own experience has sent me back to the novels to read them this time with even greater fascination, and satisfaction.

If you’ve never read any of Howard’s work I strongly recommend giving it a go. A Dangerous Innocence, by Artemis Cooper also provides a fascinating insight into upper middle class life, in England in the second half of the 20th century, and the impact of writers such as Laurie Lee, Cecil Day-Lewis, Arthur Kostler and Sybille Bedford in Howard’s life, as well as her tempestuous marriage to Kingsley Amis, and her influence on the young Martin Amis, who claims that it was she who oversaw his education and made him a writer.

I loved this book.

Writing the Dream

I’m delighted to be able to tell you about a terrific new book for anyone who is an aspiring writer. Writing the Dream, recently published by Serenity Press, here in Western Australia, is packed full of valuable advice, useful tips, and the inspiring personal experiences of 24 writers who have achieved their dreams of publication.

There is great advice from Deborah Burrows and Anna Jacobs on writing historical fiction. Crime writer Felicity Young writes about her efforts to get started as a wriwriting-the-dream-v4ter. Natasha Lester whose third novel, was published earlier this year and became a best seller, describes the challenge of changing from literary to popular fiction, and the cliff hanging process of finding a publisher. And Sara Foster has valuable advice on place, setting, character and much more.  These are just a few of the diverse group of authors who have contributed to making this book an absolute gem for aspiring writers.

Writing the Dream combines sound and practical advice with the encouragement of personal stories from writers who made their own writing dreams come true. If you are on a writing journey this is the book for you, or perhaps a great gift for a friend who needs some shot-in-the-arm advice and encouragement.

Many congratulations to the dynamic Monique Mulligan and Katherine McDermott of Serenity Press for creating this great resource for writers.

Writing the Dream is available directly from Serenity Press and other online bookstores e.g. Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository and so on. It will be available in selected bookstores in 2017. For now, it’s best to order online – RRP is $26.99.

 

Competition Winners

We had a HUGE response to the readers competition – thank you to everyone who entered.

WE HAVE TWO WINNERS! I’m delighted to be able to tell you that the winners of the book bundles are Trish Nankivell and Marilyn Sanderson. Congratulations to both of you. I hope you enjoy the books, they are already on their way to you.

book-bundle

Readers’ Competition

book-bundleWould you like to win a bundle of books for yourself or your friends? Summer is such a great time for reading so I hope you’ll like this competition. I’ll be giving away a bundle of four of my books to each of two winners. You can see which books in the photo. With Christmas and the holiday season looming, you could tick some presents off your list, or line up your summer reading – all in one fell swoop!

To enter the competition all you need to do is opt to follow my blog. That means you will receive my latest blog postings directly into your email inbox. To do that you need to go to my website www.lizbyrski.com and enter your email in the “Follow blog by email” field at the foot of any webpage, and click the “follow me” button.

If you already follow my blog, then go to the Contact page on my website, and fill out the form, putting the words “Christmas Competition” into the comment field.

Two winners will be chosen by random and contacted by email. The books will be posted to the winners.

The competition closes at 5pm on Monday 12 December. Good luck!