Monday, May 27, 2013

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

The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling (M)

When councillor Barry Fairbrother dies, the people in his community begin to realize just how much he meant to their town. Then mysterious messages written by his “ghost” start appearing on the parish council website, exposing secrets and causing the carefully crafted lives of the townspeople to fall apart.

This is really a book for adults, and Rowling really wastes no time proving that—in the first 20 pages, there’s cursing and discussion of very adult subject matter, and as the book continues, it’s clear that this is not written for children.

So clearly this is very different from J.K. Rowling’s famous Harry Potter series…and yet they do have their similarities. Both deal with huge ensemble casts living in a relatively isolated and insulated community where gossip travels quickly and can be devastating. Both tend to venerate the dead. Both deal with adolescents having to make decisions far beyond their years. Both have gay characters whose sexuality is not explored in any kind of depth and seems to be just kind of thrown in—readers weren’t even explicitly told Dumbledore was gay until after publication. In both novels, Rowling seems to have great sympathy for the poor but very little for the obese.

In terms of the writing, Rowling’s style seems to be intact: dialogue-heavy (with each character having a distinctive voice), trademark sly humour, deep thematic wisdom. Where Rowling really excels is in descriptions of places (and their inhabitants by proxy), especially when describing the filth in a run-down area of down.

With such a huge cast of characters, Rowling does a remarkable job at making each character complex and interesting—but most are not, at least to me, particularly likeable, so I found it hard to enjoy the book. I found it actually physically upsetting at times, and I think this was because I recognized so many of the characters’ flaws as those I’ve personally encountered. Whatever its cause, though, I get a jaded and cynical feeling from the brutal realism in The Casual Vacancy. I never wanted to leave Hogwarts but, despite being impressed by the writing, I couldn’t really wait to exit petty, squabbling little Pagford.



  1. I like this reading, but the novel was not, to use your word, good-hearted enough for me. Perhaps the point was that we should care about others even if we don't like them, but it would be hard to find a part of the world where people are less likeable than in this imaginary place. It seems to me a failure of satire; if a novelist is going to expose a problem, she needs more investment from her readers. If the novel was meant more as parable, then perhaps it needs more frame--a sense of the eager listeners who will be able to act better after hearing this story.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I agree that on some level this is a failure to get a message across, which I can’t help but feel is related to the complexity and perhaps over-the-top realism of the characters.

      To compare it back to Harry Potter again, the characters there are more broadly drawn and tend to stick to their archetypes (though they admittedly gain more depth as the series progresses and some are more complex than they may first appear). That makes it fairly easy to decide whether or not to like them right away, and to continue being invested in their progress.

      But in The Casual Vacancy, we’re shown so much more of the characters’ little bad habits and petty vindictiveness that it makes them difficult to like even when they are being heroic. So making the characters complex and multi-layered seems to have worked against Rowling in this case. But perhaps it’s just a case of the message here being more complicated (muddled?) than in Harry Potter.