Novel Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling is the author of the bestselling Harry Potter series that has sold over 450 million copies worldwide. She has won awards and received honors for this accomplishment.
The Casual Vacancy is her first book. I mean that as separated from the Harry Potter series, which is a youthful indulgence of magic where millions of readers can follow a charming protagonist fight evil. TCV is another monster in itself, and should not, in any way, shape, or form, be compared or assimilated with Harry Potter. It’s painful to see a one star review that says, “This is nothing like Harry Potter. I had to return the book after five pages because the language was so terrible.”
I believe I have avoided all spoilers. I do not mention names, I do not mention significant plot points. But spoilers are defined differently for everyone and I do describe things that happen in the arcs of the story that are not confined to the first ten pages of the book.
The book takes place in the town of Pagford, a tiny hillside community next to the larger city of Yarvil. Between these two locations are The Fields, a dirty, unkept overflow of homes, that is the catalyst and focus of council politics, which is the driving plot for the novel. Characters in this small community love gossip and appreciate the intricacies of small community living, and after the sudden death of a prominent member of the community in the first several pages (or the jacket sleeve), there’s a communal gap. The story follows Pagford citizens, giving us thoughts, actions, motives, and desires. The book shows a small community environment and the effect of small things in small spaces. If a cockroach walked across Pagford Square, I would not have been surprised to read the reaction of each character in the book. Some shrieks, some laughs, but certainly gossip. (where is that cockroach going?!)
J.K. Rowling loves words. So much so that she uses a lot of them. The pages are thick with description and the juxtaposition of adverbs. You quickly pick this up as the style of the writer and the style of the book. Although it trudges, it does progress and you hit a point about 2/3 of the way through where the pages turn themselves. The 2/3 are necessary, but it took 2/3 to get there.
TCV, in the simplest summary, is a class in character development. I was learning about the characters from the jacket sleeve to page 503 and while writing this, I’m still developing characters in my head. The book is thorough. We can leave it there.
It has been said that every sentence should do one of two things:
- Develop character.
- Move the action/plot forward.
Rowling’s writing in TCV molds these into the same summit. Developing her characters does move the plot forward, as the nature of each character is what every other character in the book finds interesting.
The book touches on morality, the book makes some interesting thoughts about the deepest parts of human nature in urban vs rural society, but it took the last twenty-five pages to bring it together. It was the sort of climax you wish you had seen 150 pages earlier, something you wanted to see in terms of an aftermath. There was no catharsis, or rather, the revelations of the characters happen before the climax. But then, the climax should start a fresh set of revelations, should it not?
I like to take a pen to books that I read. I underline or bracket thoughts in books that make me think or make me say, “Good point,” “Wow,” “Hmmh.” Sometimes, I laugh out loud while reading a revelation or climax of ideas that an author has procurred for me, the reader, and I grab my pen and put a star next to the words. (Perhaps that could be a personal rating system. I’ll mess around with that later.) My pen fell asleep while I was reading this book. Once every 30-40 pages I would give credit to something profound, but the book was literal in following the characters and making everyone a tiresome son-of-a-bitch.
The ending of this book left me emotional, but unsatisfied. Some of the most bastard characters got nothing for the things they did in 500 pages worth of story. As a reader, I want justice for injustice. Everyone was at an injustice, yet some were far above the rest and they received nothing but the last page of the book. This is my largest quip and if I staked my claim on what upset me the most, it’s that some characters deserved far worse, and I couldn’t find a character that deserved to get far better and got it.
It has to be said that this is not a story with frills and a lovely cup of tea to go with your adventure. The book is dark. It can’t be described otherwise. The only time people are happy in the book is when they’ve gone to great ends to make someone else in the book feel terrible. Relationships end, people die, everyone regrets almost everything they do.
I’m not disappointed I read the book. I would recommend this book to those who can read such a thing. There is swearing. There is sex. There is violence. There are drugs. But these things were all apparent in books such as Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, both tour de forces of writing. But the diversity gained from reading TCV was pleasant for me, to be able to see and appreciate Rowling’s new endeavors, and to log another reading experience on my shelf. I was just left asking more of the forces that be. God-forbid the book becomes any longer than 500 pages but maybe a bit more could have been done with those pages, a bit more about the arc of emotions rather than the intricacies of character, and a bit more absolution against those who universally deserved it.