Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.  K. Rowling

My very own copy of The Casual Vacancy. Yup, that’s my thumb.

When I first read Amazon’s description of The Casual Vacancy, I can’t say I was immediately bowled over:

When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little 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 façade 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 town’s 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?

But, of course, this is J. K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter publication, and her first adult novel, so does it really matter what it’s about? As of today, one week after its release, The Casual Vacancy is #3 in Amazon’s sales rankings. Let’s be honest: If a debut author was releasing a book with that very same description, would people be lining up to read it?

(By the way, Amazon has it wrong — the recently deceased character is named Barry Fairbrother, not Fairweather.)

Beyond the hype, how is the book itself? Does The Casual Vacancy work as a novel? Has J. K. Rowling successfully transitioned into the world of adult fiction?

Hard questions to answer. First, let’s start with the basics: The book blurb, above and on the dust jackets, does not really do justice to the richness of the world created by Rowling, nor does it convey the awfulness — not of the writing — but of the characters’ lives. This is not a happy book. You might expect — again, based on the blurb — a charming story of a quaint English town filled with interesting and eccentric characters squabbling over petty (but still quaint) politics. You would be quite mistaken.

Pagford may be a small, idyllic town, but its troubles are by no means picturesque. Old, respectable Pagford sits right next to the more urban Yarvil, which decades earlier expanded onto land sold by Pagford aristocrats and put up council housing there. This housing area, known as the Fields, is home to every imaginable form of low-life — petty thieves, drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, all part of a generally hopeless and beaten-down populace. By the miracle of zoning, however, Fields children are able to attend the more desirable Pagford schools rather than the Yarvil institutes of education. A fight has been brewing for years between those in Pagford who want to retain the Fields within town limits and accept Fields denizens into their community versus the Pagford old-timers who want to maintain the quality of their little village by redrawing the boundaries and handing the Fields off to Yarvil.

Barry Fairbrother’s death triggers the events of the novel, as his vacancy on the parish council presents an opportunity for those on both sides of the Fields conflict to try to seize control and push through their own agenda. As the election to replace Barry nears, the Pagford citizens’ worst natures and deepest secrets are slowly revealed as the desperation of those involved intensifies.

Rowling’s cast of characters is simply huge, enough so that it might be helpful early on to take notes. Major characters include:

  • The sixteen-year-old daughter of a hopeless drug addict, struggling to keep her three-year-old brother out of foster care while maintaining her tough facade at school and on the streets
  • The self-deluded wife of the lead council member, who prides herself on being a medical professional due to her hospital volunteer work
  • The social worker who makes a difference in clients’ lives while cluelessly messing up her own in pursuit of a doomed-to-fail romance with a completely passive boyfriend
  • The abusive father, who doesn’t realize how his son works to undermine him
  • The bored housewife, more interested in fantasies of a boy band singer than in her stable but unexciting husband
  • The Sikh doctor who is passionately involved in town politics but can’t see the problems within her own household

A tangled web connects the various players, linking parents and children, social workers and clients, doctors and lawyers, politicians and thieves, restless housewives and rebellious teenagers. There is no one main character; the points of view shift constantly, and the domestic dramas move from household to household rapidly. It’s a lot to keep track of, but for the most part, it works.

What doesn’t work so well is the incessant head-hopping that Rowling engages in throughout the novel. Within a chapter, and often on the same page, we shift from one character’s mind to another’s with no warning. The transitions can be jarring, and while perhaps the ever-changing perspective is an intentional literary device, I found it distracting and occasionally hard to follow.

Other quibbles: As an American reader, I had to rely on Wikipedia and Google to provide explanations of parish councils, housing estates, and the British healthcare system. I certainly welcome the opportunity to learn about other cultures and societies, but The Casual Vacancy‘s settings and politics are presented without background or explanation, and were therefore a little difficult to navigate without doing some research.

Additionally — and this may be a fault of the marketing rather than necessarily a flaw of the book — the election is set up as the pivotal catalyst of the plot… yet it was strangely underplayed and anticlimactic when it finally took place. There really was no suspense about the election outcome, as only one candidate was presented as viable in any real way. So yes, the vacancy on the council is what sets events into motion, but the actual machinations and developments within the town political system were oddly unimportant in the end, and we never get more than a passing glimpse of the council in action.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to evaluate The Casual Vacancy on its own merits and disregard the fact that THIS IS J. K. ROWLING WRITING! Consequently, especially early on, it’s a bit disconcerting to read the oh-so-very adult language and content matter. In the second chapter, a particularly unsavory character exclaims, in regard to his teen-aged son smoking:

I’m not going to fund the little f*cker’s filthy habit! F*cking cheek of him, puffing away in my f*cking shed!

The asterisks are mine; the language — here and throughout — is rough and unvarnished. Early on, I had to pause for breath a few times, thinking to myself, “J. K. Rowling is using the f-word! J. K. Rowling is writing about sex!” And then, of course, remind myself that we are not at Hogwarts, there is no magic here, and this is not a book intended for children.

At 500 pages, The Casual Vacancy is not a quick read, nor is it easy. J. K. Rowling is not kind to her characters. This is, after all, the woman who (SPOILER ALERT) killed off Sirius Black and Albus Dumbledore. Very bad things happen to her characters. No one gets off easy, no one gets a free pass, and while future happiness may be foreseeable for some characters, most will not be so lucky.

Would I have read this book if it were not written by J. K. Rowling? Probably not. And yet, I’m glad that I did. The Casual Vacancy‘s complex plotting and tragic trajectories were quite compelling, and while it often felt a bit unfocused, the overall story held my attention start to finish. It will be interesting to see where the author goes from here… but whatever she writes next, I’m sure I’ll be one of the millions lining up to read it.

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