J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

Mar 7, 2013

JK-Rowling-SUM_2348620bThe Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.”

Is that why there’s a profusion of the c-word, the f-word, and other popular profanities? As someone who can swear with the best of them, I have no objections to people cursing, but doing so amongst friends and reading conversations on the page that are riddled with cursing are two different things. One is real life, the other is tedious.

In writing The Casual Vacancy, Rowling appears to be thirsting to create the antithesis of a Harry Potter storyline, euphoric to be able to have her characters swear and have sex whenever, wherever, and with whomever they please. But instead of creating memorable moments and characters, I felt she dropped me into the tiny village of Pagford with some of the unhappiest people I’ve ever encountered. I felt—as some characters did—as though I had been captured and imprisoned in a claustrophobic, small-minded town hemmed in by hills; a homemade cocoon that failed to shelter and protect (and without the beautiful byproduct), but instead stifled and restrained.

Rowling’s cast is primarily driven by envy, jealousy, and flaming, infected, smoldering old wounds. The majority of the players are either oblivious to or simply disregard the positive effects of personal reflection or conscious objectivity; weakness of character abounds. They experience glee from others’ worries, failings, and misfortune. Half the cast can’t speak their own mind or ever say, “No,” while the other half revels in being the worst they can possibly be. Several characters “admire in each other…a genteel reticence; a pride in presenting an unruffled surface to the world.” Façades are in full force; characters smile while their inner dialogues rip the other characters to shreds. Blame is appointed to others, or on the town, or on their poor, unfulfilled, downtrodden lives. Not that we can’t all carry that tune, but it got to the point that I wanted to scream, “Say what you mean! Stop hiding. Stop holding back. Have some dang backbone!”

After around 75 pages, during which Rowling introduces about sixteen main characters, we learn that the best, kindest, most thoughtful and funny denizen in the bunch checked out in the first two pages (thus creating a “casual vacany” on the city council). In the very next scene, we read about a couple who are morbidly delighted to be the first ones to pass on the news. We follow as the details of Barry’s demise spreads via phone or word of mouth, and is received with shock (by the guy who didn’t even realize Barry was his best friend until he croaked), with disbelief (by a married woman convinced that she was simply Barry’s friend, but by page 400 finally asks, “Was I in love with him?”), and with disdain and elation (ambitions activated, dark sides triggered).

The issues over which certain politically-driven characters are divided focuses on the equivalent of section 8 housing (keep it within the city limits of Pagford or unload it onto the neighboring, more affluent, much envied, hated, and maligned city of Yarvil next door) and whether or not to renew the lease of a city-owned property currently being used as the town’s methadone clinic. The other key plot point revolves around who is going to win the currently vacant seat on the city council—let the machinations begin! But, wait. A 503-page tome about who’s going to become the next city councilor and whether or not the citizens of Pagford care enough to help the drug addicted and poor?

I read to the end because I knew I had to write this review, and yes, I wanted to find out what happened to certain characters, but it was a chore towards which I became increasingly impatient. The actual writing is okay, but nothing to ooh or aah about, nothing that glued me to the page, meaning that the story had to be great. Which it wasn’t. I kept wondering, how can a town with such people actually function? These unbearable adults create either unbearable, rebellious, angst-ridden, or self-mutilating teenagers who then lash out in a way that becomes predictable, and thus dull. The grand finale has its requisite heart-wrenching incident and repercussions, and then Rowling ties everyone’s story up into a neat bow.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mindset for The Casual Vacancy? I was eager to read it and was surprised that by page one hundred I found I was rather bored. It’s not a horrible book—solid themes, elements, and objectives are present (though the prior six paragraphs might suggest otherwise)—and I do wonder if I’m being too judgmental and not seeing the forest for the trees. I’d be interested in hearing a defense of The Casual Vacancy, because I wanted to like it, but when the clock struck midnight and I finished the last line, I was more than relieved and quite ready for bed.


4 Responses for “J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy”

  1. I haven’t read it and can’t comment on the novel, but your review is pretty good!

  2. Claudia Bailey says:

    I kept plodding away at this book and at the 50% point, decided it wasn’t worth it. Dull and disappointing.

  3. Kat Ward says:

    Thanks, Petrea. I’m working on my book review chops. I have a lot to live up to alongside you and Mel’s work!

  4. Kat Ward says:

    Interesting, Claudia. I was wondering that in regard to my own reaction, was I approaching the book with such a pre-conceived expectation because of Rowling’s previous success that I doomed my experience from the outset?



Flintridge Books

Lyd and Mo Photography

Louis Jane Studios

Homage Pasadena