Book #87: The Casual Vacancy (2012)

61gz0etPJoL._SL300_Author: J.K. Rowling
Language: English
Length: 1069 minutes (17 hours, 49 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 June 2015

After a five-year hiatus, this was the first book that J.K. Rowling published after Harry Potter, and it’s one that came out during my first year in Japan, so I missed it when it came out. Having actually caught up with Rowling’s more recent murder mysteries, that came out under a pseudonym and have previously been reviewed on this website, I thought I should actually get around to this one too.

The Casual Vacancy seems to be the book that Rowling has been denied the chance to write during her time writing Harry Potter; while Potter does get very dark towards the end of the series, it sticks to the fantastic, but the book attempts to cram in as many adult themes as its pages can withstand – things such as poverty, drugs and teenage pregnancy.

It struck me as I was reading this that I’ve recently seen or read a lot of things romanticizing small-town life in America, and this, as a depiction of small-town life in middle England, is anything but. It’s as if Rowling decided she wanted to write a full novel about the Dursleys. It’s full of class posturing, snide remarks, and backstabbing.

The central plot is that a councilman from a parish council dies suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. The rest of the village’s residents start competing for the place on the council – this is important because the dead man was a key figure in a long-running dispute over whether to try and hand back a rundown council estate to the neighbouring city. It’s pretty inconsequential, and yet not that easy to describe the plot. It’s like car crash porn for those who like feeling smug that their lives aren’t so sad that they’d have to care about such things.

The book has no central character (again, perhaps a deliberate departure from Harry Potter), and often jumps confusingly between characters’ perspectives, sometimes even for only a few paragraphs. The closest thing to a central character is Krystal, the bright daughter of a heroin addict on the estate, who is used as a pawn by the councillors and whose arc the book is most primarily concerned with. The next closest is perhaps Andrew, a boy with an abusive father who starts sabotaging his father’s council bid by hacking into the website, kickstarting another major subplot. Among the adult characters, however, there is no particular identifiable focus, which I believe is a shame.

I think that criticism can then be extended to the rest of the book – in particular, I already mentioned the lack of focus in theme. Not an awful lot happens in the book – there is a lot of character drama, which Rowling does write very well, and it eventually leads to a climax at the end. But I do think this style of jumping between characters would be more suited to a soap opera – and fittingly, the book was apparently adapted into a miniseries by the BBC (again I completely missed this by living abroad).

Ultimately I think it was important for Rowling to write this book. She puts a lot of her own life into the book – the stuff about the extreme poverty and being on benefits is directly from her experiences, after all – and I feel like she’d been itching to write about adult themes. I think this book allowed her to get that out of her system and write better books, like the Cormoran Strike books. And that’s not to say this wasn’t good. But I know she can do better.


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