Okay, here’s my real review of The Casual Vacancy, based loosely off the initial thoughts I posted last week! Also, there are marked spoilers in this, so if you haven’t read it yet but want to, stop reading when it says “spoiler time”!!
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past year or so, The Casual Vacancy is J. K. Rowling’s new, adult fiction novel that was published at the end of September. It portrays life in the idyllic-seeming English village called Pagford after one of the Parish Council members, Barry Fairbrother, dies of a brain aneurysm. His death ignites a controversy the likes of which Pagford has never seen, and that threatens to tear the little town apart at the seams.
I thought the book blurb was being dramatic when it said that beneath the peaceful exterior of Pagford lay a town at war—but it was not exaggerating at all. It seemed like no one in this town liked anyone else. They were definitely all looking out for themselves, often to the exclusion of all others. This was not at all a well-defined battle between good and evil, and it seemed like J. K. relished the change. I did too. In a way, it makes the story all the more intriguing because you can’t…quite…decide who you want to prevail, rather than always knowing who you’re “supposed” to root for. (That’s not to say that I didn’t eventually figure out who I *thought* we were supposed to root for, but I was never absolutely positive.)
The one thing I thought was similar to Harry Potter (yeah, you had to know I was going to go there eventually) was the way that the kids were the clear heroes, not to mention the catalysts of the plot. Like the adults, they all had their flaws—Fats and Krystal especially—but they all had good (if still somewhat selfish) intentions, whereas the adults were portrayed in a rather more negative and petty light. Only the kids could see through all the petty posturing and blustering of the adults as they fight among themselves for Barry’s seat on the Council.
Like I mentioned in my initial thoughts post, J. K. paints quite a picture of small-town life with a fluency that reminded me very strongly of Stephen King. If possible, though, J. K.’s picture seemed even more dark and dismal than King usually writes. Of course, most of King’s true darkness comes from the underlying supernatural evil that tends to envelop his small towns, whereas the darkness inherent in J. K.’s fictional Pagford is purely human. They both get the petty sniping exactly right, but where as Stephen King usually seems to merely allude to the past and its way of seeping into the present, J. K. really explores it, both through flashbacks and current events.
A lot of people have been saying that the characters weren’t really at all sympathetic, and I can agree with that—for most. There definitely were a few that I liked and sympathized with, though. For example, I thought Krystal really redeemed herself towards the end of the book with the lengths she went to—even though they were misguided—to ensure that she and Robbie would be together, and her suicide made me almost as sad as when Fred died in Deathly Hallows. It was really touching to finally see about halfway or maybe even two thirds of the way through the book that Barry was right about Krystal all along, and that she really did deserve the care and compassion he lavished on her.
I also really liked Andrew Price—the kid’s got balls to stand up to his abusive father and post that message online about his illegal activities. I didn’t really like the handle he chose to use, but since it ended up being a major plot point, it made sense. And teenagers really can be that tactless sometimes, so it made sense that way, too.
At this point it’s definitely worth repeating something I’ve heard in several places and quite agree with myself: The Casual Vacancy, even though it was intended for adults, still showcases J. K. Rowling’s remarkable talent for writing kids. Their hopes, fears, aspirations, and attitudes were so real that it was almost uncanny. I thought some of the scenes with Fats and Andrew and computer porn were a bit exaggerated, but hey, I’m not a boy so how would I know?
It was also really cool to have so many different perspectives in the novel, and see so many of the characters in different lights. That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced before. The majority of novels I’ve read have been third person limited (whether to only one person or a select few), and while I’m not sure I could completely call The Casual Vacancy third person omniscient, the perspectives we got were definitely not limited to a select few. And to see characters from several different perspectives—each of which shows something new about the character, rather than just affirming other perspectives—was refreshing.
I think the best example was Kay Bowden. We first see her in passing as Gavin is leaving her house and she tries to make him stay for breakfast, so my first impression of her was a clingy, annoying, pouty woman. But then you see her from her own perspective at her job as a case worker, and she was redeemed a bit for me, even though I still didn’t really want to like her. Eventually you also get to see her from Tessa Wall’s point of view, and her perspective sheds yet more light on her personality.
There were definitely a few things I didn’t like about this book, mainly that very few good things happen in more than 500 pages. Once I began to actually care about the characters (and believe me, this took a while), each new conflict was like a punch to the gut. Either that, or I wanted to rip my hair out because it was so frustrating. It also, like I alluded to before, took a very long time for me to really get invested in this book. I made it to page 50 before I put it down and avoided it for two weeks, eventually going back because I felt guilty and because a few friends told me I had to go further for it to start to make sense. Eventually, as the stories began to weave together more closely, I got more interested—but I wouldn’t necessarily say I was hooked until at least halfway through, if ever. I certainly wasn’t hooked like I have been in the past, but by the time I got to page 200 or so I knew I would have to finish. This is actually one of the few books I’ve had dreams about while I was reading, so I’ll take that as a good sign?
All in all, I have to say (as many already have) that The Casual Vacancy is not a book I would have picked up on my own had J. K. Rowling’s name not been on the cover. That seems to be the general consensus among most people I know who have read it, or who have tried to read it. But in the end, I did enjoy it and I’m glad I bought it, even though I’m not sure I’ll pick it up again anytime soon.
P. S. Make sure to check out The Broke and The Bookish tomorrow for a great chat about The Casual Vacancy! Several topics that I didn’t cover in this review will be covered there 🙂
- J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: We’ve Read It, Here’s What We Thought (entertainment.time.com)
- Sorry, Queen Rowling. (freepagenumbers.wordpress.com)
- A Far Too Common, Cavernous, and Casual Vacancy (bridgesandburrows.wordpress.com)
- J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’ review: a good read (newsday.com)
- Book review | Rowling’s ‘Casual Vacancy’ weaves dark magic (kansascity.com)