The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Hello hello, Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a good holiday period, got lots of exciting presents, ate enough to feed a small country and, of course, got suitably pissed. I’ll be kicking off my 2013 blogging with a long-overdue look at The Casual Vacancy, overdue because I finished it quite a bit before Christmas but subsequently had a bit of a falling out with my laptop. Everything’s just about usable now though, so business will continue as normal from now on. (It’s even more overdue because I meant to write this the other day, but I had a headache and now, thanks to The Casual Vacancy, every time I get the faintest twinge of a headache I manage to convince myself that I’m dying of a brain aneurysm. So cheers for that J.K. But more on that later).

Also a quick heads-up that 2013 is set to be a very exciting year music-wise, for me at least, and so there’ll probably be a lot of music chatter on here over the next couple of weeks. Just this week alone has included a new Bon Jovi single, a new David Bowie single (completely out of the blue, what a wonderful surprise!), and my purchase of a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen in Cardiff in July. I’m not kidding, my excitement levels are through the roof! I’ve got lots of gigs lined up, lots of new albums to look forward to, plus I was given a couple of shiny new CDs at Christmas that are bound to get a feature on here at some point. So, over the next couple of days, I thought it’d be best to kick off the new year with a look at what I personally believed to be the best album of 2012. I won’t give away any spoilers, but all I’ll say is that it’s a bloody good album, and if you happen to own it I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s the best of what was actually a really good haul of new music last year. Again, I meant to actually finish the year with this album review, but technology obviously conspired against me. I hope your interest is suitably piqued, keep an eye out and all will be revealed soon!

Now, on to business. It’s probably fair to say that The Casual Vacancy was one of, if not the most, hyped novels of 2012. It sold 1 million copies within the first three weeks of its release, to an audience who I expect consisted solely of people who were curious to see exactly how it would compare to the Harry Potter series, or whether J.K. Rowling could venture beyond her role as a ‘children’s author’. It’s the story of a village called Pagford and the conflicts faced by the residents in the wake of the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, and the opportunity of filling his vacant parish council seat. The council, and the village itself, are divided as to whether The Fields, the troublesome council estate complete with drug rehabilitation centre, should remain under their local jurisdiction or be palmed off onto the neighbouring town of Yarvil. I’ll admit, it doesn’t really sound like the most gripping read, but then it’s not what I expected in many ways, and I think it’s probably worth giving it a go.

Of course I wasn’t expecting The Casual Vacancy to be like the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling herself stated before release that it would be quite a departure), but I was expecting it to be as readable. Like most people, I found the Harry Potter books to be completely unputdownable (even if that’s not a real word), and feverishly read them all on the days of their release. If anything, I’d also recommend reading The Casual Vacancy in as few instalments as possible, mainly because it’s the kind of book that, once put down, is so easy to not pick up again. But that’s not to say that it’s bad or wasn’t enjoyable. It’s just that, for the first couple of hundred pages or so, Rowling introduces so many different characters (each with their own little separate and intersecting dramas) that it’s pretty tricky to keep up with exactly who’s who, what’s their relationship with the other characters etc. To begin with it’s actually a bit exhausting, and the volume of characters is such that it’s hard to feel like you have any kind of in-depth knowledge of any of them as individuals. Having said that, if you persevere it does sort of all come together and the story becomes more compelling.

So that’s the first problem I had with this book. The second problem I had was with the writing itself. It’s not exactly a secret that J.K. Rowling is actually not the best writer ever to grace a page. But the story of the Harry Potter books was so wonderful and, yes, magical that it could mask, or we could at least forgive, the odd cliché or sentimental simile. It’s a bit harder to get away with in The Casual Vacancy. For a book that’s sort of meant to be realistic about all kinds of social problems and issues faced by all of us in British society today, there are similes and clichés all over the place. That’s hardly the biggest literary sin in the world though, and it’s probably me being nitpicky because I’ve definitely read worse writing. However, I could happily forgive all that I’ve already said if it wasn’t for Rowling’s use of dialectical, slang, ‘common’ pronunciation, whatever you want to call it, that is used by the residents of the council estate, mainly Krystal Weedon and her family, and ends up on the page in the form of horrible, ghastly looking colloquial-ish phrases like “’Oo’s ‘e?” (For those of us who are capable of speaking and writing proper English, and yet would also easily understand while reading that particular characters would not speak in Queen’s English or pronounce all of their ‘t’s and ‘g’s, that phrase could also be written in the less-likely-to-induce-skin-crawling way of “Who’s he?”). I’m fully aware that I’m a bit OCD about grammar and punctuation and the like, but on a more sensible note I really do find it very jarring and difficult to read things written in that way, and I really don’t think it’s necessary. It interrupts my flow, so to speak. But again, I know I am being very picky, and dialogue woes aside, the language (and specifically the way the language is presented) actually doesn’t detract from the story, as long as you can bring yourself to be interested in the story in the first place.

I say ‘interested in’ rather than ‘enjoy’ because, actually, there’s not very much to enjoy in the story. Frankly, it’s all a bit depressing and heavy. What J.K. Rowling’s done is to basically pick all the gritty, unpalatable subjects that she couldn’t fit into the Harry Potter series, and throw them all in together in a big, miserable, gosh-look-at-the-appalling-state-of-society lump. It begins and ends with tragedies, with no happy endings, and sandwiched in between there’s everything from drug abuse, child abuse, rape, violence, suicide and underage sex, to an awful lot of bitterness, rivalries, and familial revenge. By the end of it I really found myself questioning whether anyone actually likes each other. Basically, it’s just all a bit grim. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as J.K. Rowling has said herself that she gets angry about issues to do with social deprivation and exclusion, especially if she feels they’re based on social injustice (I’m just paraphrasing, and probably badly, from her interview A Year in the Life of J.K. Rowling which you can find on Youtube). It’s clear that she’s trying to use this novel to present some kind of message about the state of society, but to be honest I’m unsure what exactly that message is. That the middle class are abusers or neglecters of the poor? Or that the under-privileged are the victims of a cruel and mindless society? It’s all a bit unclear, and I think this is mostly due to her hugely-stereotypical inclusion of a teenager from a deprived background who deliberately tries to get herself pregnant so she can get a nice council house and move away from her heroin-addicted prostitute mother. By the end of the book, I was just a bit confused. I felt that I was clearly supposed to be taking something away from the story, but I’m still completely baffled as to what that ‘something’ should be.

Also there was too much sex in it for my liking, although there wasn’t really that much sex at all, but I find any sex is too much sex when it’s written by J.K. Rowling. I’m sorry, but I will never feel at all comfortable reading sex scenes by the same person who wrote about sweet little house elves. No, just no.

Anyway, despite everything I’ve said so far, please don’t be put off. It really is worth a read, as long as you bear in mind that it’s not going to be a fairytale and does require a bit of effort. The last couple of hundred pages are really quite gripping (although it is a 500 page book, so there’s a fair amount of introductory material to get through first). You certainly won’t forget it once you’ve read it though. But if you’re really not sure whether to give it a go or not, you can always wait for the tv adaptations. The rights have already been snapped up by the BBC with an estimated release for 2014.

All in all, I’d say the book’s a success. It really is about as far away from Harry Potter as J.K. Rowling could get, and I think it does stand up well in comparison considering that she’s been focused around the world of Hogwarts for the whole of her published literary career. Plus this is a book that she really wanted to write, and that seems quite obvious. If it hadn’t been her first book since Harry Potter, I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. The book’s only really popular because people were intrigued by it because of Harry Potter, they didn’t necessarily read the blurb and want to read it for the story itself. I think it’s quite admirable that J.K. Rowling can now allow herself the freedom to write whatever she wants, regardless of whether it’s going to be a bestseller or not, or will fit into a particular market. Let’s face it, she’s never going to be short of money, so she can write whatever she likes and if it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter. I think her next book will be the real test of her skill as a writer. People won’t need to buy it just to see if she can write outside of Hogwarts, The Casual Vacancy is their proof that she can. If her next book still sells well, then we’ll really know that she can hold her own as a writer post-Potter.

See previous Book Review, featuring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

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14 thoughts on “The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

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  4. A year and a half late I have just read this. (I read this blog last year before I got my hands on a copy of the book).
    Totally agree with you on the dialectical recording of speech. So annoying to read! And in a way weirdly patronising to the group of people it felt like she was trying to defend with the issues raised in the book. Gripping but incredibly miserable at the end!

    • You’re right, it really was patronising, and didn’t really help the message she was trying to get across. I kept hoping she’d pull something out of the bag to give it a happy ending, but what a downer! I’m still very intrigued by her post-Potter writing though, I’ll definitely have to give A Cuckoo’s Calling a go soon – hopefully it’ll be a bit more cheerful!

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