REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Pages: 503, Level: Easy

Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

“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

And now for something completely different…

This is not a book full of car chases and explosions. While the story immediately starts with a subtle bang (is that possible?), those reviewers who compared it to Twin Peaks hit the nail on the head. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Casual Vacancy is made into a movie that attracts all those who still mourn the demise of Twin Peaks.

Even though this is a completely different genre from the Harry Potter series, the reader will recognize the same brilliant writing-

Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him. Again and again she found herself forgetting, for the space of a heartbeat, that he was gone forever and that she could not turn to him for comfort. p63

You can feel the heartbreak. And I was so sucked into the drama of the community. Stephen King once said in an interview¹ that horror stories feed the pit of hungry alligators residing in our head; as long as you feed the alligators, they stay in the pit. I feel the same way about drama. The more drama I get in my books, the less I want it in my life. This book feeds the drama alligator.

In addition, the characters are well developed, and quickly at that. My favorite scene in the beginning is when the school counselor is frustrated because even though she continues to remind a student to stop cussing, the student continues to cuss with every other sentence or phrase that comes out of her mouth. I was even frustrated and wanted to reach into the book to smack the student. But the most impressive part of Rowling’s character development is that I cannot decide whether or not I like any specific character. Sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t. Or I like some things about them and others, not so much. Hmmm… sounds like real life…

The book begins with Barry Fairbrother’s death and the reactions of various residents who live in the town. It is interesting to see how, for many, Fairbrother’s death is an exciting event that breaks the monotony of every day life. People want to be the first to tell the news to others and when they do, it makes them absolutely giddy and gleeful. Their importance seems to be tied to whether or not they were among the first to know and how many people to whom they get to break the news. In addition, less than 24 hours after his death, people are more excited about what it means for the parish council due to the now casual vacancy rather than concerned for the well-being and feelings of Fairbrother’s family.

Birth and death: there was the same consciousness of heightened existence and of her own elevated importance. The news of Barry Fairbrother’s sudden demise lay in her lap like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances; and she would be the fount, the source, for she was first, or nearly so, to receive the news. p16

I am sure many readers will read this part and think it is completely unrealistic and surreal, but I know from personal experience that this is not uncommon. I will not go into detail, but in a real life passing, others were jockeying for position, competing to be the one who was of most consolation to the family and of course bragging to everyone else about all they were doing to be helpful. The death was about them; it was disgusting.

Later we get into the inevitable competition to fill Fairbrother’s seat on the council, which is quite controversial for the community because of a longstanding disagreement regarding a drug rehabilitation clinic. The new seat has the potential to put an end to a 60-year long stalemate regarding this issue. Of course this has a far reaching affect on the lives of those in the community.

That is the surface of the book. The genius of The Casual Vacancy is multi-faceted; I’ll just mention a couple of examples here. First, the reader sees how one man affected so many people, even if unintentional; it is like a web- while the opposite sides of the web are far away from each other, they are still connected. Second, this is a small town and many would see their problems as small time problems compared to those of big cities. But the problems to the residents are incredibly important. The contrast between the scandals and the size of the town added a whole different dimension to the story, at least for me it did.

The Casual Vacancy delves into so many social issues. Let’s see if I can begin to list them:

  • Drug abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Spousal abuse
  • Pedophilia
  • Underage sex
  • Poverty
  • Illegal activity
  • Computer hacking
  • Racism
  • Cutting
  • Social work
  • Drug rehabilitation
  • Politics
  • Rape

Keep in mind, this is just a partial list. Somehow Rowling addresses these issues, from several points of view I might add, without overwhelming the reader.

At this point, I do want to make a comment about the style of the writing. As previously mentioned, Rowling is an amazing writer and Harry Potter fans will see the same skill here. With that said, I sometimes find it distracting when the point of view changes frequently in the same chapter or section. This does occur in The Casual Vacancy. However, Rowling’s writing skills are so good, these changes are extremely smooth and didn’t cause any pause in reading.

I have read some of the other reviews of this book. Yes, some people gave the book five stars, even though they have not read it, because of the Harry Potter series. Yes that is ridiculous. But The Casual Vacancy also got a lot of bad reviews for other reasons. Let’s look at some:

It was boring

I understand. This book is not Agatha Christie or Dan Brown. It’s not a thriller and it doesn’t have any vampires or zombies in it. More than a few reviewers compared it to Twin Peaks, which itself is very polarizing. You have those who thought Twin Peaks was a snooze fest and incomprehensible, and others who consider the series a cult classic and mourned its demise after only two seasons. If you are one of the latter, you will likely enjoy The Casual Vacancy.

There was too much swearing

Yes there is swearing, but it really isn’t all that much. I think this is just a convenient argument for someone to use who did not like the book and is just looking for more reasons to back their position. Honestly, the swearing is not excessive and is used logically.

The characters were not well developed.

Absolutely wrong. If you don’t like the characters, that’s one thing, but Rowling is a master of character development. The book 503 pages long; she has plenty of time to develop the characters and does so beautifully.

The book is nothing like Harry Potter

Why should it be? Neil Gaiman writes horror, science fiction, comics and kids books including The Blueberry Girl, which is a beautiful verse of wishes for a newborn. Why should Rowling be expected to only write Harry Potter-like stories? It’s a silly criticism and I think an unrealistic expectation.

The book is full of gross sex

Really? Where? I think I missed that part. Yes there is sex in it, but some of the reviews make it sound like every other page is an orgy. That’s not the case. And hello! There is sex everywhere in the real world. Why is it so scandalous and unacceptable when J.K. Rowling includes it in her story?

People wouldn’t really behave this way

What planet do you live on? They absolutely do; I’ve seen some of this crazy whacked out behavior with my own eyes. And let’s remember one important detail- this is satire, people. This literary technique has been around for quite some time. Dostoevsky exaggerated the absolute worst qualities of humanity to prove a point and he is considered one of the Russian greats.

There are so many criticisms of The Casual Vacancy that I could go on for pages. I just want to give you an idea of why some people did not like the book and why it got such a low rating. I almost did not pick it up due to the low rating. I am glad I did because I love this book; I’m glad I bought it in hardback. But be warned, this is a difficult book to recommend to a specific person. My tactic has been to ask, “Did you like Twin Peaks?” If the answer is yes, then I recommend the book. If the answer is no, then I recommend that person may want to pass. If the person doesn’t know what Twin Peaks is, I look at them with condescending pity and walk away. Just kidding…

Bottom line- if you are looking for Harry Potter, don’t bother picking up this book; you probably won’t like it. If you are looking for something like Twin Peaks, this may be for you. Setting all comparisons aside, The Casual Vacancy is truly a phenomenal book. It is an intelligent book without being snobby. It is a mirror of the worst in humanity and society. It is a story of redemption and salvation. It is bittersweet life. And most important of all, in my opinion, it is just a well written and enjoyable read and has made it into my top ten favorite books of all time. Kudos to J.K. Rowling for something completely different.

Reviewed by Christina

¹ Why We Crave Horror Movies, Stephen King, Playboy, 1982

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