Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (2013 Film)

Contains spoilers.

 

This won’t be a full review, due to my lack of concentration at some parts as a result of it being my first 3D film and also the fact that I haven’t read the original 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, nor seen any of the other film versions, which I feel I’d need to experience before making a full assessment of the film.  I walked in blind, as it were.  It’s directed by Baz Luhrmann, who I’m told is a skilled director, and has previously directed Romeo + Juliet and Australia, neither of which I’d seen but had heard a lot about.

To me, the most thought-provoking aspects of the film is its themes within the historical setting.  Set during the Roaring Twenties, a period of unparalleled economic growth within the USA following the First World War (and preceding the inevitable collapse of the system in the 1929 Wall Street Crash), this was the period of jazz, of unenforceable prohibition and of corruption.  The film certainly glorifies the nightlife scene of New York in 1922, showing a seemingly endless sequence of parties, pleasure, alcohol and chaos.  It’s certainly atmospheric, but my main reaction was thankfulness that I never lived during this period!  The film encapsulates the changing moral landscape of the time, which is also expressed through the romantic relationships characters form.  Gatsby, Daisy and Thomas all participate in extramarital affairs, while Nick and Jordan’s fling begins in an alcohol-fueled party.  The film is no advocate of the sanctity of marriage, and it’s fascinating to see society’s change portrayed so successfully.  The importance of money within the film also stood out to me – scenes are littered with references to the gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Indeed, the crux of the film lies around the idea that Gatsby did not feel worthy of Daisy’s love until he had made something of his life.  It’s difficult to say whether the book’s message was for or against this individualist, ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture; the novel would really need to be read  to say for sure.

A result of many of these themes is that I personally found it difficult to relate to many of the characters.  I struggle to understand the forces which drive the characters in their greed and their lusts.  Why does Gatsby see such an importance in money?  The parties, the affairs… I had the same problem with Othello, leaving me wondering whether it’s flaws in the writing or flaws in me.

There are many comparisons to be made between the period the film is set and the society of today.  Economically, the excesses of the 20s bear a lot in common with the economic book experienced in the early 2000s, only to be shattered by a financial meltdown in a similar way.  The same values of individual profit, private enterprise and the ‘American dream’ still dominate today, despite having been proven fundamentally flawed again and again when unregulated.  Ultimately, it’s Gatsby’s need to attain individual economic success – which he achieves through the illegal distribution of alcohol – that proves to be his downfall and prevents him from experiencing a happy ending.

Despite my feelings towards the characters, I can’t deny they are well written and acted.  Hearing the lyrical lines many were given made me want to read the novel, even if the eventual plot and themes had the opposite effect.  I was surprised by how likeable a character Gatsby proved to be; I imagined he would be a flawed, irredeemable character, but I was mistaken.  The character is possibly even portrayed as too virtuous.  He’s brilliantly acted by Leonardo DiCaprio, who always impresses me with his diversity.  I also enjoyed Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator – the only character I personally believed to be realistic.   Daisy is well acted by Carey Mulligan, although her role in the story rather annoyed me.  She is viewed as an object, as a prize, by the men who compete over her.  Never is this clearer than in the confrontational scene, where they both cry variations of: “She is mine!” “she loves me!”  That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except she is there with them and says nothing.  She cries a bit, then wanders off, then is all, “oh, don’t make me choose.”  But essentially, it’s a confrontation between Gatsby and Tom over Daisy, in which she has no input.  I appreciate these were the values of the society at the time, but it still irritates me.

It was an interesting decision, in setting up the period, to use modern music.  In the soundtrack can be found names including Beyoncé, Florence + The Machine, Lana Del Rey and André 3000 (presumably a rapping robot – or sounds like one at any rate), all of whom are generally in the charts right now.  The obvious decision would have been to go for 20s jazz music to set the period but, oddly, modern pop music kind of works.  It establishes that this is a period of partying and excess, ideas that most pop music today push forward.  I don’t like the music, but it works.

Finally, I was quite impressed by the levels of detail and symbolism present in the film.  Little touches, like that optician billboard symbolosing the ‘Eyes of God’, judging characters and disapproving of their lifestyles, or the green light across the bay acting as a source of hope for Gatsby, make me realise how The Great Gatsby became a literary classic.

Overall, I have conflicting feelings over The Great Gatsby.  I kind of liked it and disliked it at the same time.  Visually, it’s beautifully directed by Luhrmann, but I’m unsure of how I feel about the central concepts of the story.

Final rating (if forced): 7/10

Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who, series 7 continues!  We’re on episode 4 of 2013’s run, and episode 10 of series 7.  Hide, written by Neil Cross (who also wrote The Rings of Akhaten, two weeks ago) and directed by Jamie Payne, who has made his debut into the world of Doctor Who.  I have never been a great fan of ghost stories, particularly the sort where all the action is contained within one dull haunted house – which has been done so many times before – but it soon became clear this would would be quite different.

The actual ‘haunted house’ segments at the beginning were also better than I expected them to be.  The characters of Alec and Emma were more interesting than the ‘ghostbusters weirdos’ I expected, and there were some genuine frights.  The ghost in particular… Ah, that face.  Though I found the constant lightning distracting, perhaps for obvious reasons.  Hide, like last week’s Cold War, is a historical story, set in 1974 (the year Tom Baker became the Doctor, fact-fans!), though this wasn’t a very important element of the story.  It did mean a reliance on analogue photography, which gave us that great scene where the Doctor and Alec talked over developing photos.  It also made the use of candles for lighting more realistic, as this particular house may not have been inhabited for some time and therefore not had electricity installed.

The story really went up a notch (“top notch”, as the Doctor was keen on saying) when the Doctor and Clara took the TARDIS to the same location throughout history, to snap pictures of the changing ghost.  We saw the Earth at the beginning of its history, a prehistoric jungle populated with now-extinct life, the mansion in Victorian times and then the same spot at the ending of the world.  This gave the episode a much greater scope than I expected, and while scope does not always equal quality, it saved Hide from being the rehash of ghost ideas I had been expecting.  And then, the pocket universe!  Such a good idea, and incredibly well realised.  The trees, shrouded in fog and harbouring a monster, created a very creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere.  My only reservations with the plot is the theme of love, which seemed shoe-horned in at places.  I did like the ending, where the Doctor returned to the pocket universe to rescue the ‘Romeo’ creature and to reunite it with its mate, though it was rather rushed.  I know it would have completely ruined the tone and the flow of narrative, but I’d have quite liked to see two of these hideous creatures in the TARDIS!

Speaking of the TARDIS, it behaved quite oddly in this episode.  There is the continuing arc of the TARDIS’ hostility to Clara, but this verged on sarkyness at times, bizarrely.  When she addressed the TARDIS voice visual interface and it took the image of Clara herself, making that jibe about being someone Clara esteems – what was that about?  Also, it’s been commented that having a TARDIS voice interface thing, particularly when it shows bits of personality, ruins the tragic ending to The Doctor’s Wife where it was assumed the Doctor would never again be able to speak to it.  Just niggles, but still things which stuck out.

I am really enjoying the double act of the Doctor and Clara.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman just fit into the roles of Doctor and companion – staggeringly so, when you consider this was the first episode of Coleman’s to be filmed (Asylum of the Daleks aside).  Their ‘banter’ may be a bit wearisome at times, but it is also quite endearing.  They also have quite a balanced relationship; I do like Clara continuing to question the Doctor, this time wondering how he can see people as anything other than ghosts when he has the whole of time at his disposal, on top of Emma’s warning that he has ‘ice in his heart’.  This is definitely setting up for something in the finalé.  Another thing I love about Clara is that she reacts realistically.  She has seen the end of the world, and that grief, that confusion, it stays with her throughout the episode.  This is what Rose was like at the beginning of series 1 in 2005, before the character became ruined, and its very refreshing to see.  Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine were also great as Alec and Emma, playing the awkward couple-to-be realistically and with conviction.  I look forward to seeing Raine play Verity Lambert in An Adventure in Time and Space later this year.

The direction from newcomer Payne was also, generally, pretty good.  Doctor Who increasingly looks like a very expensive and well-produced show.  I’ve already mentioned the success in making this a highly atmospheric and creepy episode, and I’d also like to add that the effects in animating the creature in the forest was, well, ‘top notch’.  Some form of stop motion animation, perhaps?  This gave it a very disjointed, staggered movement, adding to the tension.

In conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable episode, one which I liked far better than I expected to.  This 2013 run of episodes, in my opinion, has been pretty consistent in quality.  I look forward to next week’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which promises to certainly be interesting!

Final rating: 8/10

Breaking Dawn (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Well.  Here we are, at last.  It’s been a journey covering two months, from tedium to anticlimax, from the occasional high to the more frequent low, but now, at last, the Twilight Saga is over.  I considered rambling my thoughts for Breaking Dawn, by Stephenie Meyer, in the same way I did for Eclipse, but then, to my shock and horror, found some parts of the novel were actually redeemable.  Not very redeemable.  But a bit.  So I decided to go with a full review – or at least, to be as structured as my reviews ever are.  Breaking Dawn is split into three separate ‘books’, two from Bella’s perspective and one from Jacob’s.  Considering my vastly differing reactions to each section, breaking the review up by ‘book’ seems the most apporiate way to discuss the novel.

Book 1

I’m just going to say it: reading these 150 pages or so almost caused me to lose my faith in literature.  Singlehandedly, this section convinced me to never read a book/series out of plain curiosity ever again in my life.  Sorry, 50 Shades!  In this book the ‘events’ of Bella and Edward’s wedding and honeymoon are explored.  And that’s it.  The wedding itself only covers, I can’t remember, about 2 pages, with the reception perhaps another 10 for when the werewolves arrive and get angsty and stuff.  The rest is spent either preparing for the wedding and on the honeymoon.  The honeymoon chapters, where Bella and Edward retreat to ‘Ilse Esme’, this bizarre island off the coast of Brazil which has suddenly been introduced.  These chapters refused to end, despite my fervent wishes.  Everything is described in intricate, mind-numbing detail – apart from the sex, where Meyer avoids as many details as possible.  I’m not complaining.

Then, Bella gets pregnant.  This is an interesting idea, although I’m not sure how it’s possible, and it determines the direction which the rest of the novel will take.  Edward plans to kill it but Bella has suddenly developed an attachment for the monster growing inside her.  I couldn’t comment on the nature of maternal instincts, but this doesn’t seem wise.  Whatever her thoughts, I fail to be engaged in the ‘action’.  This section’s most successful achievement is making a good case for contraception, although not one which could be applied to most couples.

The characters are all exactly the same as they’ve been in previous novels.  Nothing new to comment on here.

I genuinely can’t think of anything else to say for Book 1.  I finished reading Breaking Dawn a couple of weeks ago and have since tried to scrub it from my mind; this section was the first to go.  Just as I’m on the brink of putting the book down, of giving up on a novel for the first time in many years, the narrator switches to Jacob and the book suddenly becomes original again.  That’s the problem with this first section; it’s not only bad, but it’s repetitively, tediously bad.  There is virtually no conflict.  I don’t know whether Meyer planned this, but it was very well timed.

Book 2

In transferring to Jacob’s perspective, the novel is injected with life once again.  Perhaps still much more of a focus on his ‘feelings’ than a typical teenage boy would feel, Meyer has convincingly written from a male perspective.  I’ve mostly forgotten how she wrote it so can’t say to what degree her writing style changes – I was mostly in awe of the fact something mildly interesting was happening – but I think there were a couple of noticeable differences.  As a writer (well, amateur writer), I do appreciate the difficulties of writing in the first-person from just one character’s perspective, let alone two, although I would expect such a renowned and successful writer to be adept at this skill.  I’ll take my lack of scorn and criticism whilst reading as evidence that she has at least partly mastered it.

By far, the most enjoyable feature of this Book of Jacob (sounds rather Biblical) is to see the werewolf pack mechanics up close.  I can clearly imagine how, as the pack grows, the characters would begin to suffer from collective schizophrenia from all the thoughts of the other wolves chattering in their heads.  The power struggle between Jacob and Sam, resulting in Jacob unwittingly creating his own pact between himself, Seth and Leah, is also one of the highlights of the book.  In fact, the complex division of alliances is probably my favourite aspect – the Cullens are also split on their opinion of the baby, as Rosalie and Carlisle are against killing it and so protect Bella from Edward and the others.  This  is the kind of conflict the rest of the novel has so desperately needed!  It really makes the reader wonder how it will be resolved.

Another genuinely interested fantasy element in the Twilight series is that of imprinting.  I really respect and can relate to Jacob’s horror of the concept, that it takes control of the affected werewolves’ emotions and therefore their personalities by making them blindly in love, at first sight, with someone who could strengthen the genes.  This is made worse by the fact that the subject is often a young child.  I would certainly feel the same way.

Jacob and Leah’s exchanges, both of whom have been wounded by love (in Leah’s case, her boyfriend Sam imprinted on another woman and their relationship suddenly ended), can be touching at times.  I would say that Leah is probably one of the more likeable characters in the series, in that she doesn’t actually irritate me at any moment.  In fact, her snide bitterness makes a welcome contrast from the gooey, perfect lives the other characters experience far too frequently.

Watching Bella’s pregnancy from Jacob’s point of view adds to the sense of horror which is already extremely prevalent.  The idea of being beaten from inside, of her baby kicking so much it gives her bruises and even cracks her ribs, is sickening – and also very effective.  The only way to placate the baby is to feed Bella blood, which she drinks with a relish.  This is truly skin-crawling stuff.  However, Meyer never quite creates the right atmosphere, as these scenes tend to be mired in humour, inanities and dull characters, causing these wonderful horror concepts to never reach their full potential.  And then Bella gives birth, a process which would have killed her if Edward had not performed a C-section with, uh, his teeth, and in doing so transforming Bella into a vampire.  Rather yucky stuff.

The baby is carried out of the room, and at that moment Jacob takes a glance at it, imprinting instantly.  Oh, dear.

Book 3

Back to Bella’s perspective again.  Oh well, an interesting protagonist was nice while it lasted.  Although this is the new and improved vampire Bella, so we never quite return to honeymoon levels of tedium.  It is fascinating to read Bella exploring her new powers and abilities as a vampire, although it’s a bit of a cop out that she avoids all of the bloodlust associated with newborn vampires.  I suppose waiting years for her to gain self control would jar the novel’s pace more so than it has been already.
I am really disappointed that Jacob imprinted upon Edward and Bella’s daughter, who they named Renesmee.  His resistance to the idea and his desire to maintain some control over his thoughts and actions are completely undermined.  Suddenly he is completely in love, and happy, and no longer salivating over Bella and getting depressed about her being a vampire.  In fact, he’s cool with it.  I know there are fantasy elements at work, but this is sudden, lazy and feels wrong.

Actually, a large portion of this section (about half of the book) consists of everyone being happy.  The feud with the werewolves vanished when Jacob imprinted, because there’s some ancient code forbidding them to attack the subject of a fellow werewolf’s imprint, or something.  That’s another reason I hate imprinting in the series: it’s a plot device to remove each individual strand of conflict.  The concept is fine, but Meyer uses it in ways to my distaste.

Then, suddenly, the action ramps up again.  Alice has had a vision of the Volturi attacking and killing the entire coven, in response to a vampire called Irina witnessing Renesemee and mistaking her for one of the feared Immortal Children.  This is a bit of a dull way for the threat to unfold, though it makes sense.  She then suddenly departs with Jasper, presumably having abandoned the Cullens in despair although I just know they’ll be back later.  Meyer does manage to craft an intricate mystery in their disappearances.  Alice, through code, leads Bella to J. Jenks, a fabricator of identities, in order to implant the idea of letting Renesmee escape with Jacob if the battle with the Volturi goes badly.  Giving this idea to Bella, whose mind Edward cannot see into, is a clever touch.

So, in order to stay alive, the Cullens gather together a band of ‘witnesses’, whose numbers are intended to make the Volturi halt, just for a moment, so they can realise that Renesmee is not an ‘Immortal Vampire Child’.  From South America, from Transylvania (of course), from Ireland, from Alaska – from all over – vampires gather to testify for the Cullens.  So much mythology can be gleamed from this gathering, although few of the vampires have had a lasting impact upon me and few of their names I can remember.  I quite liked Alistair the hermit.  Also of interest is the development of Bella’s powers, which is to shield herself and others from the powers of other vampires.  Considering her only motivation previously has been to keep the people she loves alive, this feels fitting.

 

The battle lines are drawn, and the two sides converge.  As Meyer points out on her website, in order to prevent the characters she loved from dying this conflict had to be one of the mind.  That’s fine – a bit disappointing, but fine.  The utilisation of various characters’ mental powers push the conflict back and forth, as Aro (well characterised again) and his Volturi associates, particularly Caius, try to find an excuse to kill the Cullens, who they perceive to be a threat.  This is done well, and is surprisingly gripping.  But it’s the final resolution which really, really pushed me over the edge and confirmed my hatred of this series.  Alice and Jasper return, predictably, with some random, previously unmentioned hybrid vampire they found somewhere in the Amazon.  Aro realises he no longer has a case and says, “oh well, let’s go home.”  The Volturi return home.  The conflict is over.

YOU CANNOT DO THAT!  Has Meyer ever heard of a phrase called deus ex machina?  She studied English Literature at university, so she has no excuse not to have.  It literally means, “God from the machine”, where a plot is suddenly resolved by a factor pulled from out of the blue, and is a hated technique among literary circles.  Occasionally it can work, although not often, and this certainly is not one of those times.  The Volturi threat is not even resolved.  They’re as close the series comes to having an antagonist, and they end the final book by going home?!  No change in stance, likely to attempt another attack in the future…  No.  That’s just… No!  I did not spend two months reading over 500,000 words for THIS.

The characters then proceed to live a normal life forever, or, at least, before the Volturi find a way of avoiding Alice and rip them to shreds.  I look forward to when that happens.  The novel does have a *somewhat* fitting ending when Bella, using her new-found powers, lets Edward into her thoughts.  This moment of ultimate intimacy between the characters is the peak point of their relationship, and is a marginally satisfying way of ending the book, if such a thing is possible after the previous plot disasters.

Final rating: 5/10.

I will not miss this series.

New Moon Review

Contains spoilers.

 

   Well.  My ambition to read all four Twilight novels (written by Stephenie Meyer) and review them continues with the second book in the saga (though the term ‘quartet’ would be more apt).  In this second instalment, vampire Edward Cullen leaves human lover Bella Swab in an attempt to keep her safe from himself and his family after an incident involving a paper cut and his ‘brother’ Jasper.  Overcome by grief, Bella first goes into catatonic shock then spends months in a lifeless void.  Her pain finally begins to heal as she spends time with her friend Jacob, until he develops into a member of the vampires’ bitter enemies: the werewolves.  Bella and Edward are reunited after he, believing her dead, seeks suicide by displeasing the power Volturi family – the vampire equivalent of a royal family – but she convinces him not to go through with it.

That’s the plot in a nutshell.  It really doesn’t sound like much and, well, that’s because it isn’t.  Plot was not a strong point in Twilight either, though that did pick up pace and develop well towards the end, something which can’t be said of New Moon.  The beginning is fine; the birthday party introduces well the underlying theme of Bella’s ageing and mortality, as well as forming a reminder of the dangers vampires pose to humans.  However, once Edward leaves Bella and walks out of her life, the narrative simply stops.  About 30 pages pass then until Jacob even makes his first appearance (6% of the book), and then around 80 pages (16%) spent developing Bella and Jacob’s relationship and sewing seeds for the werewolf reveal until an event actually happens.  The pace is so incredibly slow.

And yet, it was never once boring.  That’s perplexing me.  The development of characters does pay off and the reader gets to know them intimately, but as a rule this should never be at the expense of the narrative; rather, the two elements co-exist and feed off one another.  So how come New Moon somehow gets away with this?  It isn’t through the plain, clichéd writing style.  I’m not convinced it’s a reflection on the characters either.  Perhaps it’s in the relationships, which Meyer spends most of her time developing.  Is it possible for the relationships to feel deeply developed if the characters are not?  Perhaps so.

The pace does quicken with the werewolf reveal, although this does feel like a less detailed rehash of the vampire reveal in Twilight.  The book’s antagonist is revealed to be Victoria, bitter after previous events, who is seeking to kill Bella in revenge.  The werewolves are tasked with protecting her, and this seems to be where the story is going.  Then, suddenly, Alice Cullen arrives out of the blue after she ‘saw’ Bella jumping off the cliff (more on that later) and finds out about Edward.  The pair are consequently whisked away to Italy where the climax of the novel takes place.  The werewolf strand is utterly dropped, scarcely to be mentioned again.  I know this will be continued in the next two books, but to review New Moon as a novel in its own right – which is it – this is rather sloppy.  In addition to that, the threats are resolved astoundingly easy.  Edward’s about to kill himself!  Hold on, he’s seen Bella, he’s fine.  They’re being taken deep into the Volturi’s lair!  Wait, they’ve been let free after Alice wordlessly promised to turn Bella into a vampire so she’ll keep their secret.  Literally back home in time for tea.  When they return Esme thanks Bella for everything she did in saving Edward, and while it’s true she did risk her life in going to Volterra, she did little else.  This makes logical sense, but emotionally and structurally feels utterly wrong.

What didn’t make logical sense was Bella’s dreaming.  Every night, for about four months, she dreamed the same dream.  Then suddenly, when her lifestyle changed, the dreams also changed.  This shows a lack of understanding towards either dreaming or effective symbolism.  Even worse symbolism was the sledgehammered references to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which revealed in advance exactly how the plot would go.

Bella was starting to grow on me throughout Twilight, but I’m afraid after New Moon I’m finding her completely unbearable.  I can empathise with the deep trauma she feels when Edward leaves, particularly when it is later explained that she not only grieved for him but for his family, her way of life, and her future.  Yet, after four months, she really ought to have had the capacity to at least smile, or communicate with people.  It’s hinted she may have deep psychological problems when her father suggests a psychiatrist, and the more I think about it the more it makes sense: Bella is crazy.  Insane.  Loopy – mad – doolally!  It all fits!  Her hallucinations of Edward are shrugged off as being ‘merely her subconscious,’ but since when have hallucinations being natural and normal?  This is why she is immune to the effect of vampires’ powers!  Her erratic, self-destructive personality, and her lack of awareness towards danger, is now finally explained.  Her shocked reactions to reveals which were obvious from the beginning…  The Twilight quartet suddenly works, thinking from the perspective of, forgive me for the lack of tact, a lunatic.  It almost becomes a work of high literature.

My opinion has not changed of the Cullens since Twilight; while Edward was extremely flawed to abandon Bella in the way he did, it’s in his character to do so.  It’s also in Bella’s character to so rashly forgive him without a trace of anger.  The most interesting character to be developed in New Moon is Jacob Black.  To fully analyse Jacob, he needs to be treated as two characters: pre-transformation Jacob and post-transformation Jacob.  Pre-transformation Jacob is likeable, reliable, and the reader feels compelled to appreciate him.  Then, when he becomes a werewolf, his character seems to change.  He’s far angrier, more assertive, less of a ‘klutz’, more reckless… Maybe, in Meyer’s mythology, these are the normal effects of a werewolf transformation, but in terms of characterisation it feels wrong and cheated because the reader is expected to sympathise with New Jacob just as much as with Old Jacob, which doesn’t happen.  I have no idea what Meyer intended Jacob’s purpose to be.

His werewolf comrades fare little better.  All males, inexplicably, and all overtly boyish.  If Twilight oozed suppressed tension and desire, New Moon is sweating in testosterone.  Another inexplicable facet is how virtually every male with a speaking role seems to fancy Bella: Edward, Mike, Jacob, Quil… Bella laughs and shrugs it off awkwardly, as she only can do, but it feels wrong.  Girls (and boys) with this talent do exist but I don’t believe Bella to be one of them – I’m not convinced.  There’s no reason for her to be so ‘fanciable’.  Bella admits this herself, going on about how worthless she is, but drawing attention to a quandary without resolving it does not make it go away – Meyer might as well have stuck an arrow saying “Look!  Irregularity!”

I did, however, like the Volturi – particularly Aro.  His friendly enthusiasm, greeting people as friends one moment and planning to kill them the next, makes for edgy reading.  The moment when dozens of unaware humans are led in for ‘feeding’ is intentionally horrific and has precisely the desired effect.  They are a real and credible threat, which makes it all the more disappointing that this threat is not yet realised.

One final criticism: Meyer’s repetitive writing style is beginning to grate on me.  How many times did she use the word ‘twisted’ when referring to someone’s facial expression?  The convoluted references to literature and science in explaining everyday occurrences – although if we’re going with the “Bella is insane” explanation then this is suddenly genius.  But I return again to my earlier point of how readable Twilight is.  It absolutely shouldn’t be… And yet it is.  Meyer must be doing something right, but what that is escapes me.  I must give her credit for the unresolved threads at the end of New Moon, nevertheless.  Victoria is still loose, the Volturi will kill Bella if she does not become a vampire but the werewolves will declare war if she does, Bella’s impending choice of either Edward or Jacob… I have to go on, keep reading…

Overall, New Moon is not a spectacular work of fiction.  It’s slow, all over the place, at times nonsensical and unconvincing.  And I enjoyed reading it despite each of those potentially ruinous flaws.  I had a conversation with the school librarian today about the Twilight quartet (she gave me a look of shock when I asked to borrow Eclipse), who told me she feels New Moon is the weakest book of the four, and that the next two improve.  Will I agree?  Watch this space.

Final Rating: 5.5/10

Twilight Review

Contains spoilers.

 

I’m not sure why I was possessed by a sudden desire to read the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.  As its reputation demands, any books about such fantasy romance should be hideous to all males.  I guess that’s precisely why I decided to read them, so I could decide for myself what I think of the books.  And also, I feel compelled to read books which reach a certain level of popularity so I can see what the fuss is about.  (Fifty Shades of Grey is on the same pile.  At the bottom).  I’d seen the film before and wasn’t greatly impressed, but I know too well how little this says about the book.  So, after particular difficulty acquiring the book – I decided not to take this as a sign – I began reading with great interest.

And, you know, it’s really not that bad.  Sure, it is a romance novel which I appreciate isn’t everyone’s thing, but I don’t feel as if any shred of ‘manliness’ I possess has been compromised for having read it.  The concept is very simple: vampire and human fall in love, vampire fights desire to kill her and drink her blood; he must then protect her from less restrained vampires.  It’s a good concept but the execution, I think, is the main flaw with the story.

The book begins when Isabella, ‘Bella’ Swan moves to the dull, wet and green town of Forks to live with her father.  Her reasons for doing so are immediately unconvincing: she wanted her mother and her mother’s boyfriend to have space as they travel across the USA, although mildly in character, as it is revealed that Bella generally response to situations in the opposite way which would be expected.  It took me a while to warm to Bella.  She seemed very conceited to begin with but I began to realise it was all part of her awkward, but generally pleasant, manner.  However for someone so independently minded it’s disappointing that she becomes so submissive and thoughtless in Edward’s presence.  At the book’s end, as she pleads with Edward to let her become a vampire, it’s clear she really hasn’t thought it through.  Sure, she’s infatuated with Edward now, but is that really worth an eternity of putting humans in danger, having to seclude yourself from society?  Granted, I wouldn’t necessarily turn down the offer myself, but her knee-jerk reaction is rushed and for all the wrong reasons.

I also was less than impressed with the development of Edward and Bella’s relationship.  While that may be down to my distaste of the flimsy nature of relationships in general, I would expect such feelings of love to come with some appreciation of the other’s company.  Yet all Bella and Edward do for the first half of the book is endlessly debate the philosophical nature of their relationship, or prattle on about how they feel about one another.  Which is fine, I’m not criticising that, but there’s never any indication they actually like one another beyond their attraction towards each other.  Edward is in love with Bella’s scent and she is in love with his perfection.  I suppose that’s just how relationships work, but it never felt believable until their love for each other had been established.

Despite my criticisms of their relationships, I do like the characters in Twilight.  Bella is interesting and unique, particularly when contrasted to the ‘typical teens’ of Forks High School.  That said, everyone’s so innocent in Forks.  When Mike arranges a trip to the beach everyone’s content to build a bonfire and then go exploring.  From my experience this outing would not be complete without at least a dozen tins of various alcohols – but perhaps that’s more a reflection on the culture I live in; Forks is four and a half thousand miles from where I live, after all.  But I digress.  Although Bella was different, there are a lot of people like her in the world and I couldn’t see what made her so special in particular.  Edward is initially the most interesting character with one hundred years of experiences, though he does begin to get repetitive as the novel progresses.  And what’s with his dominance over Bella?  I get that his domination over her, more than once dragging her to do his will (she always stops complaining before long), is meant to be romantic, but I see it as verging on misogynistic.  Charlie is your stereotypical American police officer, unable to cook and hobbies consisting of fishing and watching football.  The teenagers at the school are just as stereotypical, though mostly realistic.

The Cullens are the most interesting and varied characters.  Some are not given much development yet: Esme is ‘kind’, Rosalie is ‘hostile’, Emmett is ‘funny’.  Jasper, Alice and Carlisle are the most developed characters, and are consequently the most likable.  Carlisle in particular garners the reader’s respect, and takes the role of a wise mentor for the others.  Jasper and his ability to mildly control people’s moods is an intriguing character.  Alice, with all her enthusiasm and intuition, feels the most human of the vampires.  Then there’s James, the sadistic hunter after Bella’s blood.  He was very well crafted, and responsible for the novel’s most suspenseful moments.  I knew Bella would survive – I practically know the plot of all four novels – yet I was gripped.  The plot leaps in pace after James’ introduction and feels as if it’s finally found its feet.

Overall, Twilight is a far better book than I expected.  Not perfect, certainly, and nor is it aimed towards my demographic, yet I enjoyed it nonetheless.  I intend to read the three remaining books in the series, though I fear my resolve may fail at the repetitive nature, particularly as the love triangle around Jacob is formed (side note: Jacob’s far younger, clumsier and awkward than all the promotional images for the films would have me expect.  Interesting marketing techniques).  But I’ll persevere.  It’s been years since I last abandoned a book and I don’t intend to start now.  Who knows – I might even enjoy them.

Final Rating: 7/10

(PS: How do I tell whether I’m ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’ ?!)

The Casual Vacancy Review

Contains spoilers.  Is also excessively long.

Any artist’s work will be judged in light of their previous work, and this has never been more true than with J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy.  As everyone knows, Rowling is famous for the worldwide hit Harry Potter books which combined have sold over 450 million copies – the best selling book series in history.  The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, and Rowling has retreated from public attention since, as can be discerned from her quiet Twitter account.  But in September this year The Casual Vacancy became Rowling’s first published non-Potter book, open to scrutiny from the world.  Cue millions of people expecting Harry Potter 2, despite Rowling making clear from the outset that The Casual Vacancy is a far different, more adult book.  I began the book with the expectation that I would enjoy it, but that it’d be nothing special.

The book is set in the modern day, evident from references to austerity and other features of modern politics, as well as including Facebook and online forums featuring heavily in the plot.  The lives of the residents of the town Pagford are followed, with particular focus giving to an election to fill the seat of Barry Fairbrother, who recently died of an aneurysm.  The council is split over a run-down estate called The Fields; half wants it to be reassigned to nearby city Yarvil, the other preferring it to remain part of Pagford.  This is where the characters can be loosely divided between progressives and conservatives, Rowling I would imagine placing herself on the side of the former.  Despite her public support for the Labour Party, Rowling does well to avoid her biases slipping through into the politics of the story.

The Casual Vacancy is, ultimately, a story driven by characters, and so the simplest way to review the book is to review each character individually.  I’ll start with the Mollison family, the most powerful clan in Pagford.  Howard is the ‘First Citizen’ of Pagford – the equivalent of mayor – and involved in every going on in the village.  He prides himself on being able to name every inhabitant, and possesses a smug knowledge of local history.  He’s an insufferable character with a likeable personality, making for an odd mesh of traits.  Despite his despicable attitude to poverty in the Fields (basically: “I worked hard for my wealth so why can’t they?”) he is not a malicious character and I am unsure of my opinion of him; I like him more than I know I should.  If he was someone in my life I expect I would find his hunger for power unsettling.  Perhaps I am never invested enough in the Fields debate to feel strongly enough about his actions?  When he suffers a heart attack I neither feel pity nor retribution, also indicating the limited impact he had upon me.

Howard’s wife Shirley is worse: she is utterly devoted to him and ignores his flaws, rapt with jealousy over Maureen’s involvement in his life, wishing she could work with him at the butcher’s instead.  She enjoys the defamatory posts about the other residents which end up on the council’s forum that she administrates with great pride, only removing them when pressured to.  She is her husband with charm subtracted – to such an extent that she is among my most hated characters.  Her psychotic nature is revealed when she plans to kill Howard after discovering his affair with Maureen.  Her downfall feels more just than Howard’s; her pride and blind loyalty fatal flaws.  I do not believe she would have killed Howard, but the fact her knee-jerk reaction is to do so says enough about her character.  Not entirely convinced this is a realistic reaction; the book does descend into mellodrama towards the end, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism.

The Mollisons’ son Miles is less belligerent in his beliefs than his parents.  He doesn’t seem to have a lot of character, other than what we see through Samantha: his main traits appear to be ‘boring’ and ‘turning into Howard’.  Miles is a great example of how children can unknowingly develop into their parents.  Despite playing a pivotal role in the election, going on to win the seat, he never gets a great deal of development and acts largely as a pawn in Howard’s schemes.  That said, he does himself agree with his parents’ position on the fields and I can envision him one day taking his father’s place as Pagford’s chief authority – perhaps sooner rather than later.  Miles felt realistic to me.

I seem to have had an opposite opinion of Miles’ wife Samantha than most people.  Going by reviews I’ve read, a lot of people disliked Samantha to begin but softened their view towards her as the character developed.  I, on the other hand, felt mildly affinity towards her, understanding how trapped and frustrated she must feel by her family.  As the story went on she began acting more and more unacceptably, becoming ruder in Miles’ presence, developing an unhealthy obsession with a pop start her daughter’s a fan of, and eventually intentionally kissing 16 year old Andrew at a party.  Samantha is the definition of an unfulfilled life, yet tragic as she is, summons little sympathy from within me.  She merely comes across as pathetic.  I may be too young to understand her; with all my dreams and ambitions I can’t appreciate how it would be to be trapped in such a way.  However she does start to move in a positive direction by the novel’s end, deciding to enter into the council and planning to oppose her family’s plans for Pagford, turning her feelings of despair into something constructive.

Howard and Shirley’s other child, Patricia, only appears briefly towards the end of the book, having moved away from Pagford.  It’s no coincidence that she is my favourite member of the family.  She sees their small-minded obsession with village affairs and all their prejudices, such as their inability to accept her homosexuality, for what it is.  She is a character who, unhappy with her life, managed to escape Pagford and do something about it.  Unlike Samantha, for instance.

The Jawanda family, Sikhs from India who emigrated to the town, are the Mollison’s main adversaries – at least, Parminder is.  Parminder is a councillor and local GP, arguing for maintaining the Bellchapel addiction clinic and keeping The Fields part of Pagford.  The subtle racism she receives, on one level as simply an ‘outsider’ to the village, and on another because of her ethnicity, is shocking yet very believable, and I’m glad it’s something Rowling has explored.  Parminder is a character I initially rooted for, believing her to care for the people of The Fields and their needs.  She never loses this allegiance with the worse-off, but her flaws gradually rise to the surface until she is unable to continue the fight and, after losing her temper with Howard during a meeting and disclosing confidential medical information, resigns, thus granting victory to the Mollisons.  This also has the effect of creating a second casual vacancy, ensuring the book both begins and ends with one.  The dismissive way she treats her daughter Sukhvinder, ignoring her problems, does not reflect well on her.  Yet, once again, I believe Parminder to be a realistic character but very flawed – like every resident of Pagford.

Parminder’s husband Vikram is expanded little in the story.  His sardonic attitude to the village is interesting to follow, though he prefers to stay out of its affairs.  He appears as bored with his marriage to Parminder as she is, and although they are friends, there is no love between them.  It is revealed that they had an arranged marriage so this is not surprising.  Vikram is fancied by virtually every women in the village, which resulted in what I found one of the more shocking aspects of the book.  In Samantha’s self-pity and overactive fantasies, she imagines the joy of being ‘forced’ to marry someone like Vikram.  This disregard of the social consequences of arranged marriage is another example of how sheltered Pagford is.  I’m not sure if Rowling intended this trail-of-thought to be so odious; I can’t imagine her taking arranged marriages anyway other than seriously.

Their daughter Sukhvinder is one of the more interesting characters in the story, and one of the few whom I actually like.  She has her flaws – low self esteem, self harming – but seems a good person nonetheless.  We her pain as she experiences bullying at school. The act of cutting herself is described in graphic detail, which I think the queasier reader would struggle to get through, but it’s necessary to explain her suffering.  It feels wrong to call this my ‘favourite’ moment in the book, but it’s certainly among the most effective.  Sukhvinder develops after gaining Gaia as a friend, who looks out for her and helps raise her confidence.  I think Rowling was showing in Sukhvinder the effects emotional neglect from parents can create, in addition to bullying.  She feels very realistic to me, and the only time this is broken is when she hacks into the council forum as The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, which isn’t something I believe Sukhvinder would do.

Moving on to the Wall family: Tessa and Colin wall are an interesting couple.  On the outside they’re the ‘perfect’ parents; Colin’s deputy headteacher and Tessa’s the guidance counsellor at the same school.  However in reality they’re a couple, who live a strained life due to Colin’s OCD which causes him to suffer from severe anxiety.  They are both rare characters who I feel no disgust towards.  Deeply flawed, yes – particularly Colin – but decent people.  I never quite understood what the whole thing about Colin’s paedophilia was about; some analyses have said his secret is that he is one, but that’s not how I took it.  I took it to be part of his uncontrollable anxiety, like that he was responsible for Barry’s death: Colin feared he was a paedophile, but in reality was not.  A very interesting concept.  There are layers and layers to the characters Rowling has created.  To me, they are real people who live on after the book ends.

Colin and Tessa have an adopted son called Stuart, referred to by his peers at ‘Fats’.  Fats is an interesting character in pursuit of ‘authenticity’ – to lead a life of truth, to be true to himself and the world.  This translates as a licence to do what he pleases without consideration of the consequences, of which there are many.  As with many characters I hesitantly liked Fats when he was first introduced, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting an intelligent teenager, but my respect soon dropped as his bullying of Sukhvinder become apparent and his general disregard of people’s feelings.  I couldn’t comment on whether he is a realistic teenager considering nobody knows what goes on in a teenager’s mind, not even ourselves, but I’ve certainly never met anyone like him.  After the catastrophic events of Robbie Weedon’s death which Fats is indirectly responsible for, he does appear to be changing to a more realistic philosophy.  Following several different temporary life ideas is definitely a trait common among teenagers.

The Prices.  Simon Price is perhaps both the most ‘pantomime’ comic character in the book and the most grittily unnerving.  He abuses his family either verbally or physically in several uncomfortable moments throughout the book.  While his reactions and temper are completely over the top, I have no doubt that people exist just like Simon.  Ruth is almost as irritating in that she simply takes it and always defends her husband; more blind loyalty.  Simon sinks lower, if possibly, through his criminal antics to make money fast.  Though there is some retribution when he is sacked once this is revealed, by the novel’s end he is taking the family away to a new job where most likely the abuse will continue.

Andrew, as I see him, is The Casual Vacancy’s interpretation of a ‘typical teenage boy’.  He’s covered in acne, smokes and is into girls, but is an alright person when you look past the teenage angst.  Andrew becomes, surprisingly, one of the most significant characters in the book and has a major impact on Pagford politics, in creating The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother and setting off all the anonymous posts.  I have a lot of respect for the character in standing up to his father’s abuse.  Although originally a silent aid to Fats’ bullying, as the novel progresses Andrew begins to distance himself from Fats and the friendship disintegrates.  His crush on Gaia in explores is, er, colourful detail, but always feels convincing.  Ironically Andrew is a far more ‘authentic’ character than Fats, in that he always acts as himself and doesn’t plan out his personality.  Andrew is among the better crafted characters.

The Bawden family, comprised of mother Kay and daughter Gaia, are also newcomers to Pagford, after Kay moved to be closer to her non-committal boyfriend Gavin.  Kay is new to Pagford affairs, and as a social worker reacts with understandable shock towards the state of The Fields which has been blunted for most Pagfordians.  I love when Kay has a passionate argument with the Mollison family, outnumbered but sticking to her values nonetheless.  Another very likeable character.  She gains the reader’s pity as Gavin endlessly leads her on; Gavin in complete contrast gains the reader’s scorn.  He’s weak, cowardly and naive.  He leaves Kay to confess his love to Mary Fairbrother, a week after her husband died.  Gavin, as a solicitor, ought to have more wherewithal than to be so stupid – perhaps unrealistically so.  He receives no reprieve and deserves none.

Gaia is very much a typical teenage girl – a good match for Andrew -and therefore realistic.  I didn’t warm to her as much as Andrew and Sukhvinder, but she’s also a good person.  In this novel most of the likeable characters are either teenagers or ‘outsiders’; those born and bred in Pagford have been too corrupted.  Her support and defence of Sukhvinder is endearing, and the reader can empathise with her desire to escape from Pagford.

The Weedons are the family which the entire novel centres around.  The family is comprised only of mother Terri, her children Krystal and Robbie, and several other extended family members who have washed their hands of Terri.  The children have been in and out of care but, by the beginning of the novel, are back with Terri.  Terri is battling a heroin addiction, and only managed to stay clean for the sake of her children.  Her career seems to involve a mixture of prostitution and storing stolen goods.  It is easy to understand why Krystal and Robbie are so damaged.  Their household, in all its detail, is intended to disgust, and disgust it does.  Terri is an utterly abysmal, irresponsible, weak character, yet despite this does deep down care about her children and wants to give them a better upbringing than she had; an ambition she utterly fails in.  Worse than Terri is her part-time boyfriend Obbo, the most hateful character in the book, who ultimately rapes Krystal.  Terri’s reaction, as ever, is to deny any wrongdoing.  I felt utterly drained during these chapters.  The profanity, the broken lives, the arguments… I have no idea whether this is a realistic portrayal of a family in poverty, but it certainly terrified me with the thought that anyone could live this way.

Despite the bullying, despite the irresponsible, promiscuous behaviour, I liked Krystal.  Beneath the ‘chavvy’ exterior is a vulnerable girl wanting to break out and lead a successful life.  This is evident from her memories of Barry and the rowing team; the pride she felt to be a part of it; the hope it gave her.  This, above all else, makes Barry’s death a huge tragedy.  Krystal spirals and spirals throughout the book, culminating in Robbie’s death and her eventual suicide by overdosing on her mother’s heroin.  Her story is utterly heartbreaking.  Perhaps even more tragic is Pagford’s opinion of her, the opinion which shall go down in history, as a selfish brat – the worst which The Fields could produce.  This is the version the Mollisons will produce, and therefore become the accepted account.  This has to symbolise the demonisation of the working class which occurs in some – not all – sections of right-wing politics.  It’s brilliantly done.

There is little to say about Mary Fairbrother.  She’s an object of pity due to Barry’s death, but there’s little development beyond that.  She has a fixation on Krystal due to the fact Barry spent their anniversary – and the last day of his life – writing an article about her involvement in the rowing.  While this is unfair, it’s understandable.  More interesting is the opinion created of Barry.  Rarely is a bad word spoken of him; in fact, I think Mary is the only character ever to do so.  Even the Mollisons, his political rivals, refrained from doing so too heavily.  It is easy to understand how Barry’s death caused the village to erupt into chaos in such a way; Barry seemed to be the force knitting various elements in the village together, not only politically, but also in that he was willing to listen to all sections of society.  Truly a man of the people.

Phew, that character analyses dragged on longer than I expected.  Just a few more points now.  The variety of different narratives allow Rowling to explore every character throughout the village so that it feels like a living, breathing entity.  It’s a soap opera in novel form, but better written.  I particularly enjoyed how she introduced characters in the first section, describing one family who have some form of interaction with another character, the narrative then switches to this new character, etc.  It flowed seemingly effortlessly.  I often have trouble identifying characters in novels for at least the first few chapters, but, bizarrely, I remembered exactly who every character is in The Casual Vacancy – a testament to Rowling’s skill at creating memorable, distinct characters.

The pace is a feature which has been criticised by much of the readership expecting another Harry Potter, decrying the fact it’s ‘slow’ and ‘boring’.  Yes, the pace is slow, but that’s what makes the story so rich.  There’s time to develop and explore the characters and the intricate web of relationships and alliances which weaves Pagford together.  If the pace had been faster from the beginning this sense of normality and realism would be lost.  And for those readers who seek action and drama, the pace certainly quickens in the final 100 pages or so, which sees death, hospitals, heroism, downfalls, and a conclusion to every story.  Not necessarily a satisfactory conclusion, which is fine – life goes on.  Realistic once again.

I also appreciated the use of technology in the book.  Computers and the internet have taken a while to translate into literature, with many writers feeling that over reliance on them destroys dramatic tension.  Rowling, however, has found innovative uses for computers, and without them the plot would be far poorer.

In conclusion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a fantastic return to the literary world for J. K. Rowling.  I think my enjoyment of the novel may be due to my age, as I can relate to several of the issues covered – even though there is no character I feel is very similar to myself, which is more proof of Rowling’s ability to write relatable characters.  My own opinions of the issues are thus: the Fields should be reassigned to Yarvil and Bellchapel should stay open.  Throughout most of the novel I was in favour of The Fields remaining part of Pagford, but then I had an epiphany: the residents would quite simply be better off not under the jurisdiction of the snobby, middle-class Pagfordians who neither understand poverty nor care to.  Despite this, if I had to choose one of the candidates to vote for I would probably have gone for Colin.  The Casual Vacancy was an extraordinarily and unexpected good book.  I cannot wait to discover what else Rowling is working on.

Final Rating: 9.5/10