Saturday, 20 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Author: J.K. Rowling
Publication Date: September 27, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
Pages: 503
Genre: Adult, British, Fiction, Drama
Source: Bought it

Book Description from Goodreads:

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils...Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?


     I know why you've either read, or are going to read this book. It's because you're curious. Curious as to what has Rowling come up with for adults post Potter, and if it can live up to the legend of Potter or not. I went into this with my mind still set in the idyllic childish world of Harry Potter (you really shouldn't, clear your mind and just read this book as it is) and I can tell you the exact moment that Rowling effectively shattered any childhood fantasies that I had left (it was when she dropped about 7 f-bombs in the span of two consecutive pages really early on). 

     Back when I was a kid we only had three channels, one was french, one was usually news and one always seemingly played the long running (and still going) British soap opera Coronation Street. That's what The Casual Vacancy reminds me exactly of, a bunch of old ladies that live for gossip, teenagers being teenagers and just life as you would expect in a small town with some deep secrets.

     The premise is that Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, and he leaves his seat open on the Parish Council of Pagford that needs to be filled (a casual vacancy if you will). But in this little town there's a bigger and more volatile problem that has divided the council long before Barry's death. The Fields - basically Pagford's version of a slum, where there's dilapidated low income housing filled with druggies, prostitutes and other unsavory characters. Soon it becomes a heated race between sides to fill the seat to either evict or save Fields. 

     Unfortunately, The Casual Vacancy is painfully slow. There's so many characters (I don't think I'll cover them all because it'd swallow up this whole post) that it takes forever to set each one up in their dull lives and the role they have in the community. Rowling takes an approach where she takes several story lines and weaves them so that will catastrophically crash together. She adds a 'shock' factor to each character to try and make them memorable, but I still had issues telling them apart or remembering them or really connecting with them - I felt like I was an observer to the story instead of really being drawn into it. It took me much longer to get through this book because I got bored and had to put it book down for a time before I'd find the will to keep reading again - but by then I'd forgotten who was who. So your best bet is to probably take notes, or read it in continuously. 

     Since Rowling started out writing for kids, there's a certain level of innocence that she had to maintain in the Potter books. But here - WOW does she ever let loose. Her characters hit everything from extremely conservative god fearing racist homophobic upper middle class folk, to stringent foreign parents, drug abusing prostitutes, rapists, child molestation, domestic violence, incest, bullying, self harm, affairs and teenagers experimenting with everything from drugs (I wasn't all that surprised with Rowling's extensive knowledge of marijuana, heh.), voyeur sex, masturbation and pornography. She even manages to sneak in some health problems like obesity, diabetes and stroke. However, things get really dark at some points, I had to sit back and actually remind myself that this was the same woman that wrote Harry Potter - I think if I ever go back and read those again it'll definitely be in a different light. 

     I have to admit I got really uncomfortable at certain parts, like when characters were calling others racial slurs, or being incredibly homophobic, or being exceptionally cruel to someone. Rowling does an excellent job getting you to think about all these things, and that they are a reality - but in the end it seems that nothing fully got resolved. There wasn't much retribution to be had against these high and mighty characters, and the lowly just seemed to sink a bit lower. Maybe that's what she wants you to think about - how crappy life can be and how it goes on, but it's not what I wanted in my fictional reads. I wanted some good feelings at the end, and I definitely didn't feel very satisfied - there were too many "but what happens to these people after??" kind of moments. 

     There's a lot of British slang and jokes that took some re-reads before I actually got it. So that did slow down my enjoyment and speed at which I read. To show the class division, Rowling even uses a cockney accent - which was amusing at first, but I quickly grew tired of trying to decipher it (I'm TERRIBLE with accents, even written ones apparently). I can't say that the plot was completely predictable, I didn't really try to. I spent most of my time just watching and observing the intense secrets and drama unfold - which was really quite good. Ironically, all the adults seemed to be shallow and condescending, and once again it's her teenage characters that stole the show with creativity, pain, angst and the dire situations that their parents have put them in. 

Overall: 2/5 Cups of Tepid Tea.
It was too slow for my liking, with too many characters to keep track of. Rowling may have packed too much drama into this by addressing so many intense issues altogether, but the way it ended may just end up fueling the destructive fires in other communities that are facing these same problems. There are some redeeming qualities, but I just overall didn't enjoy it that much. If you really need to satisfy your curiosity about this one, definitely borrow it.


  1. I finally read this last month and I agree that it is like you observe this story rather than get drawn in. Having no one central character doesn't help this.
    Unlike HP, whose Britishness made it more quirky, I think the Britishness of the Casual Vacancy is actually turning non-Brits off. It's too British to really make people care... if that makes sense.
    And I definitely agree that her teen characters are the most interestingly developed.
    Great review though!

    1. Your comment about it being too british totally makes sense. I'd have to look up some thing because it was so slang that I didn't know where they were going and it just took me out of the story. I dunno, a lot of people enjoyed it, and it did get better towards the end but overall I was just blah about it.


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