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

Publisher: Little, Brown
Selected Edition: Hardback
ISBN: 978-1-4087-0420-2
Published: 2012
No. of Pages: 503
Price: £20.00

There is a tiny little part of me that hates that I gave in to the hype and bought The Casual Vacancy on its release week. Another part too that feels completely unabashed, given that I have thoroughly enjoyed her previous books. I suppose it is difficult to write a review of this book and ignore completely the phenomenon that is Harry Potter.

True, without her previous novels, it is doubtful that I would have bought this book when it was first out, and probably based on the blurb alone I would have been unlikely to pick it up for a pound in a charity shop. The website blurb is as follows:

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
A big novel about a small town, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.

Pagford is a small town, in which a lot of its residents have a small town mentality, insular, distrusting of outsiders and puffed up by their own importance in the local community. Many of the characters, such as Howard the local shopkeeper and obsequious parish councillor, do not invoke much sympathy with their bumbling pomposity and warped belief of their own likeability.

There is something familiar about the voice that tells the story – like you have reached that age when you get to know the adults around you as adults and they start to treat you like one, letting you in on grown up secrets, swearing and talking about sex and drugs and social issues. There is also a comical voice that fans of the Harry Potter books will recognise, adapted to a new genre. The morning after Barry Fairbrother’s death, to which Samantha and her husband, Miles, were witnesses, shows off Rowling’s style:

Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and , increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat. It was appropriate, after all, to be solemn and a little worthy this morning.

As usual with Rowling, she pokes fun at her characters, or at least the ones that she doesn’t like, drawing attention to their failings by treating them as slightly ridiculous. This novel is troublesome, very few characters escape retribution – there is something to sacrifice for their acts, whether it is guilt, or the loss of a love or a dream.

Never are the portrayals so scathing as when the teenagers in the novel are judging their elders. Fats, the son of a vice principal and a guidance teacher is constantly fighting against his parents in his search for ‘authenticity’. Fats is a bully, manipulative and destructive and although he pays for it dearly, he is somewhat spared as he is conscious of the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, his friend Simon finds ways to punish his father for his abusive behaviour, new girl in town Gaia rebels against her mother for uprooting her from a vibrant life in Hackney to a sleepy country town, and Sukhvinder overcomes her low self-esteem and self-worth with an heroic act.

The linch pin of the novel for me was Krystal Weedon and her family. A resident of the local council estate, The Fields, her mother is trying to overcome her heroin addiction and her life is constantly interrupted by social workers and guidance teachers, trying to help her and her at times neglected toddler brother, Robbie. She struggles to hold things together after the death of Barry Fairbrother who acted as a mentor to her, encouraging her and seeing her potential. She is bright and caring, looking after her brother as best she can, missing school to look after him and dealing with the implications that her struggling, drug-addled mother’s life have on her own.

I can’t pretend that this novel was inspiring or uplifting – at times I found it a bit heavy-going and weighted by the issues of its characters. It is only balanced by Rowling’s witty ridicule of the middle class and their propensity for pomposity (maybe a phrase Rowling herself might use!) and if it weren’t for that I would have found it quite depressing. It does raise interesting observations or more precisely, indictments, on the current situation for many people across Britian, something that J.K. Rowling is clearly passionate about. This does seem to me like a very political novel and I think it is a stark reflection of modern society – it’ll be interesting to see what opinion of this is 20 years down the line, or longer even. If it is a portrait of modern society, then it isn’t very flattering at all.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

  1. I love Harry Potter but have not yet felt the need to read this. Like you say, going from the blurb, it’s not really something you’d normally rush out to buy. I’m sure I’ll try it one day though! Thanks for the review!

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan | Ragdoll Books Blog

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