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Review: The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

The Casual Vacancy is more Dickensian than Dickens.   If Dickens is searing social consciousness sprawled across a plot, dripping with characters and descriptions, this is Dickens with characters you actually care about and descriptions you actually want to read.  (Sorry, Charlie.)

I am not a big fan of Dickens (can you tell?) but I somehow struggled through a big load of his books when I was a teenager because I thought they were good for me.  I found them somewhat wordy and rambling in plot, and the descriptions more tedious than either terrifying or tear-jerking.

These days I try to read only books that I enjoy.  Hence my plea for help for a “books you must read”, which I promise I am getting through, as life and work allow me.

With this list vaguely in mind, I thought that J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was Rachel’s recommendation but looking back I realise I bought the wrong book and Rachel recommended The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Anyway, totally unintentionally, I found that The Casual Vacancy was an ideal companion book to have read after Closed Doors.

Both books have similar themes and settings: an insular community, troubled adults who are incapable of tending to their children’s needs, and shocking acts of violence at the heart of them.

The term casual vacancy refers to the space that is left on a Parish Council when Counciller Barry Fairbrother, all round good egg (the characters in this book have excellently symbolic names), suddenly dies, exposing a giant rift at the heart of the Pagford village community. One half of Pagford has always rankled since the “The Fields”, an area of deprivation, troubled families and home to a drug rehabiliation centre, were assigned to fall within their boundaries in the sixties.

Barry, on the other side, grew up in The Fields, but “made good” and is determinedly optimistic about the ability of other to follow him out of them, with support. He is the most vocal but also respected and tactful supporter of The Fields on the Parish Council and with his passing, the vacuum created is wide open to be filled.

It sounds quite dry but the depth of character is astounding.  The Casual Vacancy as opposed to Closed Doors is what you get when you take a character based as opposed to a plot based approach.  It’s a lot longer for a start. It’s also a lot more realistically violent.  The term casual vacancy reminded me here of casual violence: from the teenagers amongst each other, to the family man who lashes out at his wife and teenage sons. Rowling does not pass judgement but we clearly see that neglectful or violent behaviour both arises from and begets more of the same. (Tracy, this book is definitely not for you – it gets quite disturbing from a social work point of view.)

To divide approaches into plot- based and character-based is rather simplistic. The Casual Vacancy contains plot aplenty, but plot is always driven by character. The “mass” of characters which drove the plot in Closed Doors become a sprawling, but carefully portrayed “cause and effect”web of individuals whose motives and actions have knock on effects on each other.  However, I never felt that any of the descriptions or events  could have been cut out, and I always looked forward to getting back to the book and unusually for me, I didn’t skim read at all, but enjoyed the many complex motivations.  For example, I was amazed by the delicate reasoning Rowling has behind an underage girl’s decision to sleep with her boyfriend.  From afar, a meaningless gesture by a girl too young to care less.  But closely examined, it’s the results of a girl’s anger at her mother at uprooting her from the home she has always known for the sake of a relationship that everyone else can see is doomed; the girl wants her mother to know that she “was driven to brand herself on Marco’s memory because she was being forced to leave him”.

As expected, following the legacy of Harry Potter, Rowling is excellent at getting inside teenagers’ heads.  The other thing that The Casual Vacancy has in common with HP is the gripping  force of character of the “villains”.  I thought it was quite clever the way this works in the web of cause and effect; the villains are the only ones whose pasts are not shown to us, and so Rowling is able to present an overall argument for the way social deprivation works without cheating us of the opportunity to boo and hiss at a couple of true villains.

As for magic, Rowling fashions some truly black magical prose out of the landscape of The Fields, for example, conjuring the half remembered image of a dead man in the bathroom, both beautiful and disturbing, from the mind of anti-heroine, teenage Fields resident Krystal Weedon.

It’s true that the beginning is a bit unwieldy, throwing so many characters and inter-relations at us.  In this age of the TV “episode recap”, J.K. Rowling has basically treated us as intelligent readers by not over explaining everything at the beginning.  Which I kind of appreciate, but it’s the only thing that would stop me from unhesitatingly recommending this to a friend; I would fear that they would be turned off by the anticipation that this would just be a book on dry village politics and therefore miss out on the fantastic read to follow.

This book is open ended and realistic about how entrenched society’s social problems are; realistic that it takes a lot of effort, or an overwhelming experience, for most people to even think about being able to change themselves.  But it still manages a magical, moving ending, which captures the way that most magical thing, a human mind, works, loves, hates and desires.

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18 Comments

    • You’re right, I don’t think it’s for everyone, if you don’t like to read about the extremes of bad things happening to people. Sometimes when I’m reading I do feel like I’m “getting through” a book rather than totally enjoying it but I never felt that here. Sometimes some really bad things happened to the characters but for the most part they didn’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves but made the best out of things, or just tried to numb what was happening to them. It was like J K Rowling was treating her characters with respect and was *interested* in them as characters above anything else that made it ultimately enjoyable for me.

  1. That sounds really good. I’m glad you enjoyed it even if it wasn’t the one I recommended. I might have though, if I’d read it. I’ll put it on my list.

  2. I am glad that you enjoyed this book, Denise, and I enjoyed reading your analysis. I read this book for book club. To me personally, I found it to be so sad and dark… and the characters seemed unreal and there were too many story lines. I did not enjoy it, but I wish that I had. I did try to enjoy it…. Best – Shanna

    • The middle class characters were either quite like me or like people I have worked with! It was also realistic the way people didn’t end up changing a lot by the end of the book BUT what change there was was very affecting. I particularly liked the way Samantha changed – to me that was a huge symbol of hope because it made you imagine that some good could come out of what people had seen, just that it was on a longer term scale than the book could span.

      Did people tend to like it or dislike it? People either seem to really like it or it’s really not for them at all, judging from the Amazon reviews.

      • I am glad that you can relate to the book – an analyze it on such a high level. I do agree with you that some characters acted as symbols of hope and optimism. This idea for a fiction book that is dark in other elements. Please, do keep these reviews coming. I am also an avid reader. My best to you, Denise. – Shanna

      • I thought that darkness and light was so similar to Harry Potter. It also made it an amazing book for me – I like both contrasts in fiction, and also admiring the ability of an author to do both.

      • Denise, I am SO incredibly embarrassed to say that I have not read the Harry Potter books! So, really, I cannot respond. 😦 What are you reading now? What is the best book that you read this year. Darkness and light… I can say that I do enjoy the contrasts of both in fiction. I like for fiction to be realistic. Speaking of darkness and light, have you read any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books? She has just released a new one. I adore her short stories. Happy New Year, Denise! 🙂 Best wishes, Shanna

      • I’ve not got round to reading Jhumpa Lahiri – that’s prejudice on my part because I am not so keen on short stories. But no reason why not.

        Neither of my kids have read all the HP books. They read a few and then were not bothered after that! I found them pretty good at building to a moving climax but it is a lot of pages to get to that point! The journey along the way is enjoyable too.

        I think the best book I read this year was Affinity by Sarah Waters. I was gripped by it, it really drew me into the world. I also liked Mark Haddon’s The Red House – clever and real and well done, in a less breathtaking way than Affinity.

        I’ve got a few “should reads” that friends lent me and have just ordered in some “want to reads”. I’m spending the last of the holidays trying to make a push on the last part of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy – very readable and interesting.

      • Oh, Denise, I really appreciate the book recommendations and have made note of them. I am also glad that I am not the only person in the world who has not ravenously devoured each and every Harry Potter book! the History of Western Philosophy sounds like quite a read! You are a scholar! 🙂 Have a wonderful, book-filled week. – Shanna

  3. You are so adept at exactly capturing the spirit of a book without giving too much away. Your review has made me want to read this book again. I especially agree with your point that Rowling has treated us as intelligent writers. I really enjoyed this book and was surprised that more people didn’t understand what a wonderful book this really was. And the ending! So perfect, so harsh.

    As for your fraught relationship with Dickens…I’m totally there with you. Except for A Tale of Two Cities. The end of that book is worth all the work.

    • This is one of those books where I think “I’m so glad I have a blog!” The book for me was good on a really deep level – it had had such a lot of thought put into it – and maybe either as a society or as individuals we’re not used to that and want more quick fixes.

      The ending was indeed perfect. It was physically realistic but mentally the way it ended soared above what was actually happening, and that was the perfect way to be uplifting without being sentimental.

      I think I’ll read A Tale of Two Cities again – I tried it as a teenager but never got through it.

  4. I think this is one of the best reviews of this book that I’ve ever read – so many of the others were so very coloured by post-Harry Potter expectations. I felt a genuinely clear sense of what this novel might actually be about! And I’m really glad you enjoyed it. I sort of feel for J K Rowling, who is so determined (and good on her!) to move on from the kind of series that might define her forever more. Happy New Year to you and your girls, too!

  5. Me

    I’m glad I read your review, as I think I will read it now. I initially was put off from reading it because I don’t like to read stuff that is overhyped, hence why I’ve never read and never will read any of the Harry Potter books or The Fifty Shades etc. But this does sounds like a book that I would want to read, so I will definitely add it to my list!!! Thank you x

    • I would say if anything The Casual Vacancy was underhyped and that has made me root for it more! It seems that people are down on it for not being a story about a wizard, when in fact it is so subtle and to my mind trying to tell a *real* story about how people’s lives could be, and that made it admirable.

      • Me

        I think I was put off because bbc news really went to town on it and gave it a lot I’d publicity which i felt was unfair to other authors who would love that for their own books. I’m looking forward however to reading her more adult stuff as i couldn’t bring myself to read the HP sagas!

      • Ah I missed the TV publicity! I don’t watch much TV… I just felt sorry for J.K. Rowling from the written reviews.

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