Saturday, September 21, 2013

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

The Casual Vacancy JK Rowling The Casual Vacancy is the first novel published by J.K. Rowling under her own name, since publishing Harry Potter. It is always hard for a popular author to publish something out of the niche they are known for, and Rowling certainly wasn't immune to these challenges. A lot of readers were at least initially resistant to the subject matter of the novel, and hardcore Potter fans (myself included) always want more Harry.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel about the small English town of Pagford, and the drama, politics, infidelities, drug use and secrets within the town that go on undetected by its population. The novel opens with the death of parish councillor Barry Fairbrother, and the vacancy of the title refers to his now empty seat on the council. Barry's death has far reaching consequences that no one could have predicted, and soon the whole town, from the elderly to the teens of the council estates, are embroiled in Pagford's small-town politics.

Reading The Casual Vacancy was not a pleasant experience- the subject matter is miserable, gritty, incredibly contemporary, and realistic. It almost reminds me of the British kitchen sink realism of the late 1950s/early 60s. The hope that some more liberal members of the parish council have that things could change in Pagford is slowly eroded away and by the end of the book, a double child death hammers this point home.

Rowling said the following about the novel in a really interesting interview with Goodreads, which you can read in full here:

"Two major themes of the novel are hypocrisy and responsibility. To judge somebody else, to declare them substandard, to conclude that their misfortunes are due to inherent character flaws, can be a way of boosting our own self-esteem because it must follow that our comparative success or happiness is not mere luck or chance, but the reward for superior morals or talent."

In the interview she also discusses each of the main characters and whether they have a character who is their opposite, and who that might be. Rowling's thoughts on the novel, and the discussion going on in the comments on the interview are interesting, and I can see the novel being a popular and thought-provoking book club novel. I'm sure there are many of us in small-town Britain who know characters like those in the novel, and such comparisons aren't particularly flattering.

Despite the subject matter, reading the beginning of the book was like coming home- as a firm member of the Harry Potter generation, Rowling's writing style is incredibly familiar and nostalgic to me. Rowling is an excellent storyteller, and The Casual Vacancy was very comprehensive and full of detail, none of it being irrelevant. One criticism of the novel I have heard is that it is too long. In the case of Harry Potter this wasn't always an issue, as so many of us loved more Harry, but in a novel that is as self-contained as this I think limiting the length would have been wise and might have increased readership. Overall, I am glad I read this and in doing so, gained more experience of where Rowling might be headed after Harry. Have you read The Casual Vacancy? Did you like it, and does it convince you to read more of Rowling's novels in the future?

Rating: 3/5. Buy the book: Paperback / Kindle. Follow me: Goodreads / Twitter / Bloglovin

1 comment:

  1. After reading about 70 pages, I abandoned "The Casual Vacancy." And then after a year, I recently took it up again and managed to go the whole hog. If you could wade through the first 100-odd pages, you might find the proceedings interesting. Sure Rowling has an eye for details and is a good chronicler of human foibles. But then there are many authors who could write this kind of stuff. It is obvious that Rowling doesn't want to be remembered only as the Harry Potter-author, and "The Casual Vacancy" appears to be her fervent attempt to break free from that image trap. And it shows. The beginning is slow paced and one requires immense patience to read through it all, as Rowling rolls out one character after another, piling details upon details. The middle part is engrossing as the plot thickens, so to speak. But again, the ending is rushed and insipid. The sudden change of Fats is unconvincing and appears forced. The long and short of it is, you should forget that "The Casual Vacancy" is by the same author who wrote the 7-volume Harry Potter series. But then, you wouldn't have in the first place bought this book if it had not been by the Harry Potter-author.


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