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

The Casual Vacancy The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

 Hardback

 Review copy provided by publisher

 Hachette, 27th September 2012

 Synopsis- 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?

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.

 Review- When I was alerted J.K Rowling had written her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, I was intrigued. I have not read Rowling’s Harry Potter series, though I would like to at some stage and I thought it might be a great opportunity to experience her writing in an age group target that I fit into. Even before I picked up my copy to read I started to see a wave of mixed reviews on GoodReads and realised I probably requested this book for the wrong reasons. But, since I hadn’t read any of her work before I decided to keep an open mind, hoping my expectations would be a little lower than her devoted HP fans.

I must say, The Casual Vacancy is a slow read. My copy was a hardback, so it was heavy and at over 500 pages it’s quite a lengthy book. It unfolds gradually, there’s a LOT of characters and for the first half of the book I found myself perusing this book at a snail’s pace (which threw my review schedule out as it took me twice as long to read it than I expected!). But it did pick up in the second half of the book, I began to read it quicker and there were a couple of characters I started to connect with.

The Casual Vacancy takes place in Pagford, a small English town where nothing is what it seems. Teenagers are acting out, couples are in conflict, and parents are losing control. There’s domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse and a range of social issues filtering the town just below the radar of the townsfolk. Pagford has gone into disarray following the sudden death of the likeable family-guy, Barry Fairbrother. His position on the council is now unoccupied due to his death, this is known as a casual vacancy. Men are stepping forward, willing to step into the big shoes Barry left behind, hoping to influence the town they identify so strongly with.

To be honest, I had no interest in the storylines of any of the adults. They were all so caught up in their own lives, how they would be perceived by society and lacked insight into the experience of their children, particularly their teens. It has a very Days of Our Lives feel and I just couldn’t empathise or even like many of the adults. I think this is partly due to the fact that we see many of them through differing viewpoints, sometimes by people who dislike them.

The saving grace for this story, were the teens. Andrew, Fats, Krystal, Sukhvinder and Gaia were the only characters I held a vested interest in. They came alive on the paper and in many ways were much more perceptive to what was going on in the town than their parents. Andrew and Fats have difficult relationships with their fathers, Krystal has had a difficult upbringing by her drug addicted mother and Gaia is angry at her mother for following a man to Pagford who doesn’t even want her there.

Krystal’s family in particular stood out for me, probably because of the line of work I’m in. I really empathised with her because Rowling fleshed her out and her living conditions very well and I could picture her life so vividly. Gaia’s mother, Ruth who is a social worker involved with Krystal’s family was the only adult I could connect with. Not because she is particularly likeable, nor because I understood her but I could connect with her through her work and her sensitive viewpoints about the psychosocial issues that were effecting Pagford. There’s a dinner party where Ruth and Gavin visit Samantha and Miles and a discussion erupts about the value of an addiction clinic. I could completely put myself in her shoes as I am often defending these kinds of issues among my own family who aren’t as informed about the wider context of dysfunction.

I’m glad I preserved with this book because I could see what Rowling was trying to do and eventually it all came together. It probably would have been better with less scenes focusing on the adult sub-plots and more with the teenagers and their perceptions of the community. The ending was quite sad but also quite realistic. It’s a good example of the brilliance of hindsight!

The Casual Vacancy is a really good book. Rowling is a great writer. Did this book stand out for me as a favourite? No. But I’m glad I read it, because there were many things I really liked about it. I think it was brave of Rowling to jump into adult fiction after such a huge success in the children’s/ young adult market. I don’t recommend picking up this book if you love Rowling’s books because of the genre and fantasy elements. But if you love Rowling’s writing style, the intricate plot line she creates and the synopsis strikes you as appealing- then pick it up and give it a go. It’s certainly made me more serious about picking up the Harry Potter series so I can enjoy more of her writing.

Overall Rating

3.5/5

“I really liked this”

The Casual Vacancy can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers

 

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5 comments

  1. Great review, Jayne. I’ve been wanting to read this, and probably will, but I’m interested to hear that you found her teenage characters more interesting than the adults. Rowling does seem to be very committed to social conscience issues, so I’m not surprised that this comes out in the book–it’s something that’s rife through Harry Potter as well.

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    • The youth in this novel just felt a lot more wholesome and real, albeit just as flawed as the adults. It was the social elements of the story that really drew me in… without this layer the book would’ve fell flat. I hope you get an opportunity to read it as i’m sure you’ll appreciate those undertones too.

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  2. I’m currently reading this and I just got to the end of Part Two and I have to admit about it being very slow go. I started reading the day they brought it out. With time constraints it has been hard and reading other things beside this book has led to such the delay. However, I have to agree, the adult characters are all horribly unlikeable and I don’t think they can be connected with. I don’t particularly like the children all that much at times, but they are just teenagers and I see them for how they act as general teenagers.
    I picked up this book first because it was Rowling, but then when I started reading, I realised you really have to appreciate her style and a character driven novel that is full of social problems to like this novel.
    Rowling really tackles some controversial issues and I think people dislike this novel because she stepped out of the mould of Harry Potter.
    Great review, I think you’re capturing my current thoughts and you’ve certainly encouraged me to read more.

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    • It’s definitely slow-going and it was hard for me to persist with this one when i had so many other review books to get through. You’re right, the teenagers weren’t particularly likeable either- certainly no little angels!- but they were relateable because they were just doing what teenagers do.
      I hope that you keep going with it and i’d be interested to know what you think at the end

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