Top 10 Closing Lines in English Literature

Contains spoilers.  Obviously.

The closing lines of a book can end up defining it.  They can bring a sense of closure to the story, complete plot threads and character arcs, or leave the reader wanting more with a cliffhanger.  They’re much more significant in literary terms (as opposed to marketing) than the opening lines, which can often be drab, unmemorable and difficult to absorb due to the author’s lack of familiarity with the story – unless you’re Jane Austen, anyway.  It’s a difficult/impossible task to compile a list of all my favourite endings to books, especially since I can’t claim to have read a significant portion of English literature – let alone the established canon – but I’m going to attempt it anyway.  So here’s my top 10 list:


10. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (2009)

“But Gale is not one to keep secrets from me.  ‘Katniss, there is no District Twelve.”

These words form the colossal cliffhanger of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  Suzanne Collins excels at bringing characters from despair to hope, and at bringing everything crashing down once again.  At this stage of the novel Katniss has just been rescued from the death-match arena, surviving her second Hunger Games which were supposed to be a death sentence.  Furthermore, her actions in the arena proved to be the final spark which blazed into life a rebellion against the Capitol and the brutal dictator, President Snow.  Yet after this we learned that Peeta had been captured by the Capitol forces in their escape and then, finally, we’re given this final line that states Katniss’ home district is gone.  We know that the government has firebombed the coal-covered District 12 and that her mother and sister are safe, but this shocking final message with its brutal lack of detail hammers it home as the reader runs out of words.  We don’t know how many people survived – if any, nor the wider context of this attack.  This cliffhanger is highly effective and is a taste of things to come in the third and final novel, Mockingjay.


9. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

” ‘And then what?’ said her dæmon sleepily.  “Build what?” ‘The Republic of Heaven,’ said Lyra.”

This final line to my all-time favourite book, though not a literary masterpiece in itself like other lines in this list, remains a highly fitting conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy.  The central theme to the books is that humanity should not look to a deity, real or otherwise, for meaning and purpose, but find and build it within themselves.  The Republic of Heaven begins as an attempt to build a real society in contrast to the Kingdom of Heaven which ends in war between the two, but it becomes clear that such a project is doomed to fail as people cannot inhabit other worlds than their own in the long-term.  Earlier in the book Lyra is told by a ghost, “We must build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”  At first she probably didn’t understand this, but her assertion at the end of the novel indicates she has embraced this philosophy. Knowing there is no conscious existence after death, nor hope of life in other worlds, Lyra has accepted after multiple sacrifices that she must live as fulfilling a life as possible in her own world during her own lifespan, bringing the thematic journey of the series to a satisfying conclusion.


8. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (1931)

 “Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south–south-west; then paused, and after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left.  South-south west, south-south east, east…”

This somewhat graphic description of John the Savage’s suicide brings Brave New World to a close.  These final lines are powerful because of the sheer brutality of their imagery, using the comparison of compass needles and an agonisingly long, drawn out list of directions to create a vivid image of his feet dangling from above.  This makes the ending far more effective, as his suicide had been built up to throughout the book as he struggled to adapt to this horrific new world he found himself in, and particularly after the confused and drug-induced events in the previous scene where he let down all his moral barriers, which could have made the ending seem predictable otherwise.


7. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.”

This closing line is important for several reasons.  Pagford’s divisions are laid bare between its wealthy residents and deprived families by the former’s collective act of looking away from the coffin of the woman who epitomised the latter, Terri Weedon.  The people of Pagford have made no success throughout the novel in understanding people in situations different from their own.  Their averted gaze symbolises the ignorance they held the family’s condition in, continuing to view their faults as self-imposed rather than the result of institutional, generational poverty.  For a novel which explores all aspects of human society, the good and the bad, this may seem surprisingly hopeless, though it’s important to remember the individual characters who have been redeemed throughout the novel.  This final line, then, confirms the novel’s message that although humans may see positive changes on an individual level over the course of the novel’s timespan, societal change is a much slower, messier process.


6. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

   “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.”

Fitzgerald’s lyrical writing flows from the page to summarise the novel’s themes, told by the narrator Nick Carraway.  These final paragraphs offer us two contrasting visions: the first of a temporary setback in reaching their dreams – the American Dream – and the second revelation that obsessively seeking your dreams, as was the case with Gatsby, merely drags you further into the past as you seek to recreate former glory.  Which is doomed to fail because, as Nick enlightened us earlier, “you can’t repeat the past.”  Furthermore, this is confirmation that the entire concept of the American Dream is a lie, or obsolete in this postwar world.  These final lines show us why The Great Gatsby remains hugely relevant for American society today.


5. The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)

“Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”

The closing line of this wonderful short story completes the narrator’s mental breakdown  having been confined to a bedroom in solitary confinement so she can ‘rest’, a barbaric but oh-so Victorian way of treating depression.  We watch the narrator’s mental state unravel as she becomes obsessed by the patterned wallpaper in her room, fixating all her world’s meaning upon it, and begins ritually walking round the room stripping the paper off.  Her husband, upon viewing her, faints, but this does not deter her and she continues walking her path over him.  These closing lines show just how removed from reality she has become that she is unable to even contextualise her husband’s identity and wellbeing, so severe has her mistreatment been.


4. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)

“Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

This last line of Adam Ewing’s diary brings this epic of a novel to a close.  By this point we’ve witnessed six different time periods, movements to abolishing slavery, multiple personal adventures, revolutions and even the end of civilisation itself.  In each of the six stories it is heavily implied that a major character is the reincarnation of another from a previous story.  Whether Mitchell means this literally or as a metaphor for the consistent nature of the human soul, be it habit of the strong to exploit the weak or the enduring power of love, this final line must summarise not just the entire book but also humanity in its entirety.


3. Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)

“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike.  No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs.  The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

This classic ending to Animal Farm completes the story’s circular plot of the farm being ruled by oppressive humans, the animals themselves in a brief period of freedom before being oppressed once again by the pigs.  Orwell masterfully shows the pigs gradually adopting more manlike manners by reneging on their laws outlawing alcohol and murder, among others, and then by the pigs entering the farmhouse and sleeping in human beds.  These closing lines bring this process to its natural conclusion where the pigs, to all intents and purposes, have become men.  As this is Orwell there is inevitably a political purpose, and here it is to show how the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union have become indistinguishable from the former Tsarist regime.  Never has there been a more successful allegory.


2. Ulysses – James Joyce (1922)

“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Without a doubt the most unorthodox quote you’ll find on this list, the final lines of Ulysses (as opposed to the final sentence, which is over three thousand words long) brings some perhaps surprising order to this novel that so many people find unfathomable.  Throughout the day of Leopold Bloom, described in eye-watering levels of detail, he has been portrayed as a gentle and kind person, a protective father figure for Stephen, possessing moderate political views in opposition to xenophobic Irish nationalism and remarkable understanding towards his wife Molly, who has just begun an affair.  As a result of this he is frequently emasculated by characters throughout the book, particularly during chapter 15’s nightmare sequence in which he is literally turned into a woman.  His inadequacy as a hero is reinforced with the constant allusions to Homer’s Odysseus, proving himself to be the stark opposite of this bold, heroic figure.  And yet, in Molly’s final soliloquy, her lasts thoughts before falling asleep are of Bloom as she remembers the day he asked her to marry him.  We can finally recognise Bloom as the undoubted hero of the novel as he wins this ultimate victory against his rival for Molly – a victory not just for himself but for his values of tolerance.  It becomes clear that Bloom is indeed a hero, and perhaps precisely the one that Ireland needs.


1. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)

“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished.  He had won the victory over himself.  He loved Big Brother.”

Yes, Orwell again!  These famous lines represent The Party’s ultimate victory over Winston, providing one of the bleakest yet most powerful endings in English literature.  Throughout the novel Winston has opposed The Party and Big Brother, expressing his hatred of them both multiple times throughout.  And yet Orwell shows that even the deepest convictions can be uprooted by force, in Winston’s case through systematic torture and the horrors of Room 101.  The final sentence, deliberately basic in its construction, is an affirmation of Winston’s conversion, while the shift to a relaxed, reassuring tone expresses clearly how he has changed from the anguish-ridden man from the rest of the novel.  Completely at odds to the rest of the book, these final lines serve as the ultimate warning to the power of totalitarian regimes to bend and breaks their citizens upon their own whims.  It’s a message just as important today as it was in 1949.


Do you have any thoughts on this selection?  Have I made any notable omissions you think I should reconsider (or read!)? Let me know in the comments!

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2013: My Books

Unless I do some pretty quick reading over the next two days, I think I’m able to compile a complete list of the books I’ve read over the last year!  I’ve managed to extend my record of 38 books last year to 41!  I’ve also increasingly branched into reading non-fiction, largely around historical or political topics though also some science as well, but I’m making sure to keep up the fiction as well.  Like last year, I’ve compiled the books into two lists: in order by date read and my enjoyment of them.  I’m beginning to wonder whether it might be better to have two separate lists for the fiction and non-fiction, as it’s so difficult to compare the two forms.  I’ll bear that in mind for 2014.  For now, here they are:

Order Read

  1. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  2. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  3. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  4. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  5. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  6. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  7. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  8. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  9. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  10. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  11. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  12. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  15. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  16. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  17. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  18. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  19. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk
  20. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  21. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  22. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  23. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  24. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  25. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  26. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  27. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  28. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  29. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  30. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  31. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  32. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  33. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  34. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  35. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  36. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  37. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  38. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  39. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  40. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  41. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter

Order of Enjoyment

  1. Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell
  2. Brave New World [re-read] (1932) – Aldous Huxley
  3. The Bridge (1986) – Iain Banks
  4. The Casual Vacancy (2012) [re-read] – J. K. Rowling
  5. Road to Referendum (2013) – Iain Macwhirter
  6. The Great Powers 1814 – 1914 (1992) – Eric Wilmot
  7. The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  8. Consider Phlebas (1987) – Iain Banks
  9. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) – James Hogg
  10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) – Mark Haddon
  11. Pride and Prejudice (1813) – Jane Austen
  12. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) – George Orwell
  13. Death on a Longship – Marsali Taylor (2012)
  14. Doctor Who: The Witch Hunters (1998) – Steve Lyons
  15. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) – Muriel Spark
  16. The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era (2012) – Liu Noueihed and Alex Warren
  17. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) – Owen Jones
  18. Waiting For Godot (1953) – Samuel Beckett
  19. Gaia: A New Look At Life on Earth (1979) – James Lovelock
  20. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde
  21. The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks
  22. Ishi’s Brain: In Search of the Last “Wild” Indian (2004) – Orin Starn
  23. The Decline of the English Murder and other Essays (1965) – George Orwell
  24. Battle Royale (2000-2005) – Koushun Takami
  25. Cloud 9 (1979) – Caryl Churchill
  26. Oliver Cromwell (1991) – Barry Coward
  27. Hamlet (1603) – William Shakespeare
  28. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare
  29. Teach Yourself Islam (2003) – Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood
  30. Stalin’s Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky (2009) – Bertrand M. Patenaude
  31. American Gods (2001) – Neil Gaiman
  32. Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton
  33. Heart of Darkness (1902) – Joseph Conrad
  34. The Turn of the Screw (1898) – Henry James
  35. Romeo and Juliet (1597) – William Shakespeare
  36. Twilight (2005) – Stephenie Meyer
  37. The Thief of Time (2000) – John Boyne
  38. Breaking Dawn (2008) – Stephenie Meyer
  39. New Moon (2006) – Stephenie Meyer
  40. Eclipse (2007) – Stephenie Meyer
  41. Fight Club (1996) – Chuck Palahniuk

The Cuckoo’s Calling by… J. K. Rowling?

This story fills me with joy.  J. K. Rowling, known of course for the spectacularly successfully Harry Potter series of novels between 1997 – 2007, and also The Casual Vacancy last year (which I’m in the minority for loving), has released a third book.  Why no hype?  Why did nobody know of this?  It turns out she’s been using a pseudonym.

The Cuckoo’s Calling was quietly published earlier this year in April by an author called ‘Robert Galbraith’.  It’s a crime novel and received wide critical acclaim, with many reviewers expressing surprise that a first-time author could produce a work of such quality.  It has now been revealed that this was, in fact, the work of J. K. Rowling.  Speaking to the Sunday Times, she said:

“Being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience.  It has been wonderful to publish without hype and expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

I find this story incredibly amusing.  It’s boosted my already-high respect for Rowling, disproving any cynical claims that she’s “only in it for the money.”  I can easily understand why she chose to do this; The Casual Vacancy was, wrongly in my opinion, unfairly judged by a comparison to Harry Potter.  Every established artist’s work will be compared to their former work, but this went further.  Despite being a very decent book it received harsh criticism by people who, I suspect, were hoping for another Harry Potter.  How liberating it must have been for Rowling to escape that!  I’m pleased to see The Cuckoo’s Calling getting such positive reviews, which I hope will discredit everyone bent on labeling her a one-hit wonder.   I, for one, look forward to reading it!

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