Book Review: “The Casual Vacancy”

When it was announced that J.K. Rowling had written an adult novel that was set to be released this year, I think the Harry Potter fandom had mixed feelings, as did the world of readers at large. After all, is it really possible for lightning to strike twice in the same place? Could J.K. Rowling write an adult novel that was just as expansive, descriptive, and truly excellent as her Harry Potter series? I – along with other Harry Potter fans who have finished reading Rowling’s newest endeavor – am still trying to decide my personal verdict on The Casual Vacancy. But I thought I would set down in writing some of my thoughts after having finished this very large book that had expectations galore heaped upon it.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Casual Vacancy‘s plot, it’s basically the story of Barry Fairbrother’s death. Fairbrother was a council board member in the small, rural, English town of Pagford. When he dies very suddenly, there is what is referred to as a “casual vacancy” on the council. The book chronicles the candidates who crop up in Pagford to fill this council seat and all the drama that comes along with a small rural town’s council election. That may sound sarcastic, but there truly is a lot of drama surrounding this town and its council. There is ugly infighting, there are strong rivalries, and beneath all of that lies the everyday struggle of each character.

From the very first line of this novel, I knew that I was back in Jo Rowling’s narrative hands. It has been such a long time since we’ve read anything carrying her unique narrative voice and it simply felt comforting to read her words again. Indeed, this novel will likely hold a sentimental place in all Harry Potter fans’ hearts because it means we get to spend more time with the author who took us through that amazing series. The Casual Vacancy is rife with beautifully descriptive passages that really grab readers and put them in the locale of Pagford, just as they were placed in Hogwarts (even if Pagford isn’t nearly as splendid as Hogwarts was).

As a departure from the one point of view followed in Rowling’s other novels – that is, Harry’s – The Casual Vacancy leaps from one character to the next, sometimes between paragraphs. Each character has a storyline unique to them and this leaping point of view seems to suggest that Rowling wishes to spend more time on each one individually. But the book is filled with a large cast of characters and if she had spent more time on each one, the novel would have been even longer than it already is. The changes in point of view do help to convey the close-knit web of characters that readers may be struggling to learn. I know I had trouble remembering who was who until at least halfway through the book.

Cover of The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

The characters themselves are all masquerading as ordinary citizens of a rural town, but they each have their secrets. After all, if they didn’t have any secrets it would be a very boring novel, indeed. With these characters, Rowling demonstrates once again that she is simply talented at writing young people. The adults in this novel are compelling to a degree, but it is the stories of the children that really grabbed my attention and made me think. The children of Pagford are very often discounted by the adults as disengaged and uninterested, but they become very important to the events of the novel.

An interesting stylistic feature that caught my attention was Rowling’s tendency to place large flashback scenes in parentheses right in the middle of the story. These flashbacks always helped to illuminate something about the character she was currently following. But sometimes I would get so caught up in the deviation in those parentheses that it would be jarring to return to the main storyline. Sometimes I wanted to know more about the story snippets Rowling gave out in those parentheses.

Some reviewers have said that it made them uncomfortable to read Rowling writing naughty words and erotic scenes. I, however, did not share their discomfort. Rowling is an adult, the novel is geared toward adults, and the readers will likely be adults. The characters are realistic people, after all, and people swear, think about sex, talk about sex, and have sex.

This is most definitely a book with a point. As reviewers have already said, The Casual Vacancy does contain a political/social statement about the way our society treats the poor. One of the main characters – Krystal Weedon – is a child living in poverty and her story is a highly compelling one. How the actions of Pagford and its council affect her life is an even more compelling tale, and it’s one that our societal system should learn from. Having lived in poverty for a portion of her life, I’m sure Rowling was drawing from her own experiences when writing about the Weedons.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy. There were some dry patches in the story here and there, but I stuck it out because it was a J.K. Rowling book. By the end, I learned to love the characters and their crazy, intertwined stories and I really wanted to know what happened to them all. What does happen to them all is quite shocking and certainly left me gobsmacked. I would recommend the book simply for the way the story builds to that climactic moment at the end. And, of course, if you’re nostalgic about your Harry Potter days, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading some new material from J.K. Rowling.

8 replies on “Book Review: “The Casual Vacancy””

I loved this book. I was a little sceptical at first because I usually don’t read “people books” (meaning books that are only about relationships between people and not about anything else, like, say, magic), but I couldn’t put the book down. It somehow reminded me of The Sense of an Ending, although a lot of people would probably hate me for that. I say, give it a try, even if you normally don’t read books like that.

Hmm. I read a lot of negative or ‘She tried to hard’ reviews and I still don’t know if I want to try it. I think that’s especially because the plot doesn’t sound very exciting to me. You need a lot of interesting characters to keep something so (seemingly) simple upright.

Maybe in a couple of years, when the hype died down and I’ll bump into it at the library. After all, there are so many books yet to read.

I don’t know if she tried too hard, but if this was written by an author other than J.K. Rowling, I would not have read it. I picked it up solely because she had written it and I wonder how many other people did that as well. I still love Harry Potter the best, but I admire Rowling for branching out and writing something she wanted to write.

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