The Casual Vacancy – Review

I may be on a temporary blogging hiatus, but how could I resist the temptation to briefly return and share my hot-off-the-press thoughts on The Casual Vacancy, the latest from one of my favourite authors, JK Rowling?

There’s been much speculation in the book world over her first adult novel. Will it live up to Harry Potter? Will she fail miserably? Why is she writing a book for adults? Why is she writing at all? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS BOOK ABOUT?

With little to go by but a fairly inscrutable blurb about a dead man named Barry and a town “at war”, I set my expectations as low and as neutral as they could possibly go, the Harry Potter fanatic inside me squealing desperately at the opportunity to once again get inside JK Rowling’s brain, and eagerly anticipated the hour in which we were allowed to open the embargoed boxes at work and start reading.

Two and a half days and little sleep later, I finished the last page of the book and sat down to make some sense of my thoughts:

A dark but fascinating social commentary by an exceptional writer. 

Barry Fairbrother’s death is the precipice on which we, the reader, meet the inhabitants of the small town of Pagford, each self-righteous in their perception and judgement of everyone around them. The only decent person in town seems to have been Barry himself, which is the standard by which the rest of the characters are measured, all of them falling short in their own way. The story itself follows the lives of these characters, as they move from Barry’s death, to his funeral, to the election to fill the council position he so “casually vacated”, and the aftermath of every complication along the way.

There is no real plot that I could identify, just the simple act of observing a town in crisis and sensing the rising tension as families and relationships unravel. I suspect this lack of discernible storyline will be its undoing for many readers, but in many ways it is the novel’s greatest strength; relieving the reader of any misplaced presumptions that things will be okay, that a hero/heroine will save the day, that things will wrap up nicely. Instead it frees the reader to just go with it, get to know the characters, and watch them fumble about in the mess that is their lives.

Whilst The Casual Vacancy may show no evidence in subject matter of the JK Rowling we are so used to – preaching hope and goodness to the masses, comforting readers that good will always overcome evil – it is no small consolation that in the writing itself, Rowling excels. There were hints of Dickens, Austen and other wordsmiths of centuries past in the darkly comic tone and particularly unhurried pace of the narrative. Quite simply, the writing was magnificent and never fell short of the expectations placed on her by the simple but sophisticated standard set in Harry Potter.

With the ugly realities of poverty, rape, suicide, abuse, pedophilia, politics, class struggles and mental illness* setting the sombre tone of the narrative, I don’t think this is a book any reader can “enjoy”, so much as appreciate for its stark candidness, captivating characters, and wonderful writing.  It is a brave novel, an almost cruel reminder of how easily we judge those we perceive to be “below” us, the self-sabotage we envisage got them there, and the vicious cycle that ensues when it appears that something, or someone, is beyond help and therefore not worth the time to help.

I don’t think The Casual Vacancy will be for everyone; it’s comfortless and often downright depressing, something I usually steer well clear of in my reading (and had me certain for at least the first 200 pages that I wasn’t going to like it). But despite all that, it turned out to be one of those rare books that on the last page had me mourning the characters I had come to know so well and sitting in silent awe at all the extraordinary things they had to say.

Have you read/will you be reading The Casual Vacancy? Tell me your thoughts, dear readers!

*They really do mean it when they say “adult novel”. No wizards or dragons here. Move along, kids.

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