Book Review: THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling
Last week saw the publication of J. K. Rowling’s much anticipated first post-Potter novel. I’ve not seen a lot about it in the media, except for a few lines about the story, and the fact that it’s a novel “for adults.” I pre-ordered a copy, and started in the day I received it. The book’s plot was not exactly what I was expecting, given what little I had read about it, and what I know of JKR’s previous work. Rowling likes to plot, lay clues, and so on, so I expected this to be a mystery novel centering on the unexpected death of a prominent councilman in a small English town. Not even close.
The title, THE CASUAL VACANCY, refers to the situation arising when a position on a town’s council is unexpectedly vacated, for example, by the death of the elected councilman who held that seat. It’s a fitting title, because the story revolves around the effects, both politically and to the community, of the death of a popular councilman, Barry Fairbrother. There’s no mystery to Barry’s death. In fact there’s really no mystery to solve–at least for the reader. Rowling gives us a third person omniscient view into the lives of the various inhabitants of the town of Pagford, and how Barry’s death affects them, especially in light of the town’s most volatile issues: “The Fields” and the clinic. “The Fields” is a housing development currently run by the neighboring city of Yarvil, but falling within the catchment area for Pagford schools. Prominent citizens of Pagford want The Fields to fall outside of Pagford, so its low- (and no-) income residents become the responsibility of Yarvil (and its schools). These same citizens would also like the rehab facility used predominantly by residents of The Fields to close down, since it doesn’t appear to be effective in helping those who make use of it. Barry fought for what he believed was in the best interest of the residents of The Fields (i.e., to allow their kids into Pagford schools, and keep the clinic running), but faced stern opposition from Pagford’s old guard. Now it’s down to others to take up his cause. In the midst of the fight, there are shocking revelations that shake the cozy town of it’s moral delusions.
Rowling says this is a book she had to write, and after reading it, I can understand why. In recent years, JKR has used her high profile to advocate for a number of charities concerned with helping underprivileged children, and victims of abuse and prejudice. Issues brought up in the book are ones that are near to her heart. And for all the speeches she might make about them, she knows the most effective tool she has in her possession for getting her message out is her story-telling skills.
As a result, this book is packed with emotion, some of it heart-rending. There are hypocrites, abusers (and those who make excuses for them), helpless victims, and helpless sympathizers. She shows smug bureaucracy, and the plight of those trying to fight it. From the way Rowling writes her characters, I think it’s clear whose side she’s on. But this is fiction, not reporting, and she’s allowed to be partial. And I think she manages to keep away from caricaturing; these are people I can picture, and that remind me of people I’ve known.
This is not a happy-ever-after story. In many ways, it reminds me of the kind of thing John Green would write. For a number of YA readers, that’s high praise, and I think it’s a worthy comparison. Rowling writes with the same sensitivity to dialog and character. The gritty realism, though, is deeper and darker than I’ve found in Green’s work. And I would expect that. This is a work whose tone is reminiscent of BBC drama–not of the soap-opera type (i.e., not Eastenders), but like the classic 1980s Alan Bleasdale series, The Boys from the Blackstuff. For those who don’t get these references, let me explain. BBC dramas tend not to pull punches. They show life in all its dirty underwear with no apologies: life is hard and the good guys don’t always win–if we can even tell who the good guys are. That’s the tone of THE CASUAL VACANCY.
I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, and here’s why. On the whole, this is a well-written book with a lot of heart and many great moments. One scene that comes to mind features a social worker visiting a single mother with drug dependency issues. The way Rowling describes the scene, and the incidental moments she inserts into their dialog, make the whole thing frighteningly real. Her three-year-old son wandering around with a full diaper, the state of the furniture (or lack thereof), the smell, and the listless complacency of the mother, clearly deeply affected by her years of drug abuse.
However, I was uncomfortable with the quantity of profanity and sex. I’ve talked about this before, and while I’m willing to tolerate such things in novels, I hate it when it feels gratuitous. There were too many time when it felt as if JKR was putting it in there because she could (i.e., this isn’t HARRY POTTER so she can get away with it). I don’t for one minute believe she ever actually thought that; but that’s how many of those moments came across. She’s a skilled writer, and she could have dealt with such moments of intimacy a bit more artfully–at least IMO.
Another reason I gave this book 3 out of 5 is simply because it’s not the kind of story I typically enjoy. As a result, while the book was a compelling read, I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it. It’s a bit too depressingly real for me. If I want this level of realism, I can watch the news, or pick up a biography. Please note, this is personal preference. If you like gritty, harsh, reality tales, you’ll love this book. That said, it was worth reading for its moments of literary brilliance (like the one I described above).
THE CASUAL VACANCY is most certainly an R-rated novel. There are copious amounts of “f” and “s” words, and a goodly number of sex scenes or sex-related dialog. Please don’t buy this if you’re expecting HARRY POTTER. This is a complete departure from her previous work–and I mean a night and day difference. If you want to appreciate J. K. Rowling, the master storyteller, then you should read it.
I’m sure there are things about the book I forgot to mention. Please use the comments if you’ve read the book and want to discuss, or if you’re considering reading it and have questions.