Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Review: The Casual Vacancy
Author: J.K. Rowling
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 27th, 2012
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the residents of the small town of Pagford are shaken. Barry was a father, a husband, a friend. But at the same time, others in this seemingly ideal English town are secretly less than devastated about Barry’s death. Now that Barry is gone, his former seat on the parish council is open. With an election in the works for Pagford, the town finds itself divided. Barry was a crusader for the people living in the Fields, the poor development that is technically part of the principality of Pagford, but still looked down on. Now that Barry is gone, the fate of the Fields and the addiction clinic are in peril. For people like sixteen-year-old Krystal Weedon, Barry was someone who believed in her and saw the best in her, when to everyone else she was just the daughter of a druggie and a prostitute. To others, Krystal is just another reason Pagford should have nothing to do with the Fields and its residents. As the election looms over the small town, each candidate has a different motif for running and each has their secrets. Through the eyes of the many different residents of a small English town, The Casual Vacancy looks at poverty, secrecy and the gaping hole left in a town by one man.
This is J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults and her first book outside of the Harry Potter series, which was obviously what brought about her fame and success. Before you start reading this book, if you choose to, you should come in with no expectations and forget about the name on the cover. To enjoy this book, I really think you have to let go of Harry Potter for at least a few days and take The Casual Vacancy for what it is. Initially, I was under the impression that this book was a murder mystery, which made sense to me based on Harry Potter. It did not take me long to figure out that this was not a mystery. I quickly chose to forget everything I thought I knew about J.K. Rowling as a writer and pretend this book had been written by anyone else. The only thing that this novel and Harry Potter have in common is that they are both very good. While I would say that some of the strongest aspects of the Harry Potter books are the construction of plot and the world building, that’s not the case for The Casual Vacancy. World building is more important in fantasy, and the plot isn’t what drags you into this book, unlike Harry Potter. Like in Harry Potter, the characters were what made me love this book, but in a completely different way. While the Harry Potter books were very much about the internal battle between good and evil in all of us, I think everyone had characters that they loved, even if they were flawed. Any of the characters in The Casual Vacancy would give you reason to detest them, but I thought they were all very real. I was impressed with the honesty it would have taken when writing the many characters in this novel, and even admired how Rowling wasn’t afraid to show the very worst parts of people, without apologies.
I’m a fairly big fan of the Harry Potter books, but somehow I was still impressed by the writing in The Casual Vacancy. There were honestly a few parts where I would put the book down and curse, because the writing was just so good at times. It reminded me more of The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach or even The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I was very impressed and easily engrossed in the story. I was also impressed by how smoothly the novel transitioned through the different characters’ narratives. The multiple third person perspectives were handled expertly, and having so many characters could have easily made this book fall flat. Another one of its strongpoints was the deep emotional effect it had, and how well it presented the issues that were at the heart of the novel. This is really a novel about poverty and prejudice and Rowling dealt with important issues that were obviously very important to her very well. After finishing this book I felt sort of like I had been punched in the stomach, in the most heart breaking way. That sounds like a bad thing, but this is the type of story that should leave you feeling that way, if the writer is doing their job.
I haven’t read very many reviews of this book, but I can guess what the main criticisms are. Firstly, this book is slower moving at the beginning, although it might feel that way in part because of all my anxiety over whether I would like this new book by my favourite author. There is a lot of swearing and things that you would never see in a Harry Potter book, like sex, drugs, rape and abuse. I feel like most people are complaining about the swearing, but this is a book for adults, and based on the topic and some of the characters, of course there’s going to be swearing. I don’t think it would be true to character if some of the people in this book didn’t swear. I feel like people will make a big deal about the writer of such beloved children’s books writing a very adult novel, but I was impressed with how J.K. Rowling boldly departed from her former series in a very extreme way. If you want this book to be the next Harry Potter, then just skip it and reread the books you already love. However, if you think you can read a great book by a great writer without any expectations, then The Casual Vacancy is a book that deals with unpleasant truths with fearless honesty.
“Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised.”