Review: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

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The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling book cover
The Casual Vacancy (2012) is J. K. Rowling’s first post-Potter offering, and her first novel written for adults. The titular vacancy refers to a council seat in the small village of Pagford, following the death of Barry Fairbrother; an important and liberal presence in the community. When Barry collapses with a massive aneurism, there is a clamour to fill his seat on the council. For years Pagford has been trying to re-draw the local boundaries to alleviate itself of the burden that is The Fields – a sink estate, whose inhabitants subsist on criminality and benefits. With Barry, a great supporter of the estate, out the way, long-time Pagford resident, Howard Mollison, pushes hard for his son Miles to be elected to the vacant council seat, but there is competition. What follows is a rendering of the void left by the death of one good man, and how it affects the inhabitants of a small village community; the Asian doctor Parminder Jawanda and her relationship with her bullied daughter; the newly-arrived social worker and single mum, Kay Bawden, and her attractive daughter Gaia; the OCD sufferer and deputy head-teacher, Colin Wall, and his rebellious son, ‘Fats’; Andrew, who lives in fear of his bullying father; Miles’s frustrated wife Samantha; and most importantly the Weedons - sexually active, foul-mouthed school girl, Krystal, her little brother, Robbie, and their drug-addict mum, Terri, who prostitutes herself to pay for her habit. The Weedons represent everything that the complacent residents of Pagford detest and fear about The Fields, and without the enthusiastic and wilful Barry to protect the persecuted, a struggle ensues. Far from the traditional village novel, The Casual Vacancy exposes the narrow-minded selfishness of Pagford’s inhabitants, as they attempt to unburden themselves of The Fields and the social responsibility that comes with it.

Barry Fairbrother’s death leaves a vacuum in Pagford that no one manages to fill, and it’s heartening to see how many lives one man, who chose to actively help others, managed to touch. As much as The Casual Vacancy is a condemnation of complacency within Middle England, it is a celebration of what can be achieved when one takes responsibility for a world wider than one’s immediate circle. It is clear that for Rowling, apathy is a great evil: Too many of Pagford’s community, whilst being neither good nor bad, fail to act and so the will of the privileged and the noisy is pushed through. As in the Harry Potter books, Rowling strongly advocates taking action for the better and though Pagford is a small community, the message of social responsibility has far wider implications, and ought to chime with readers from all walks of life.

In such a large cast of characters, the men come off rather badly, all portrayed as deficient or weak, invariably poor parents and/or husbands: a fairly scathing assessment of an entire gender. But the women come off little better, with a host of mothers who fail to connect with their children and allow them to run riot, or suffer unsupported; Rowling pressing home the importance of a strong, connected family unit.

Behind the veneer of respectability, Pagford has a rather seedy underbelly, and Rowling throws absolutely everything into the melting pot; teenage sex, self-harm, drug abuse, bullying, prostitution, theft, porn, rape - you name it, it’s in there somewhere. In the end, the novel is so saturated by these grubby interludes that it sags under the weight of them, each losing its potency due to the sheer concentration. Rowling would have been far better to focus her mind and her writing on a smaller number of these episodes, given them more attention, and fleshed them out into more significant elements in the story. As it is, few carry the potency they ought to.

The characters are all introduced early on, but many are too broadly drawn at this stage to form a vivid character in the reader’s mind. As the story develops, the characters become more distinctive, but most fail to become compelling reads. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her previous successes, Rowling is strongest when writing teenage characters, and her understanding of a new generation, both male and female, is excellent. Colin Wall’s crippling OCD is well-described too, the only gripe being that there could have been much, much more of him; one of the genuinely interesting adult characters. Indeed many of the adult character don’t quite ring true, and most are reductive at best, caricatured at worst; few breaking from a very narrow view of their particular group. On top of the crude stereotyping, Rowling lumbers her working class louts with cliché ridden dialogue, “Tha's norra fuckin' crime”, etc. By drawing such clichéd, unsophisticated characters, Rowling alleviates much of the reader’s need to engage with the text, and apply it to their own lives.

Though her characters might be stereotyped, Rowling is able to assume many different perspectives and, although each may be limited, portrays them well. However, there are at least three occasions in the novel when one finds characters’ behaviour utterly incomprehensible; clearly borne from plotting necessity rather than character psychology. In a novel that is so tightly plotted, this is a significant disappointment.

There is something of Austen in the way Rowling flits between rural families. The knitting together of storylines, though some appear tangential and risk losing the reader’s interest, is well done, and she manages to orchestrate a well-structured novel, which captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of village life well.

The writing itself is neat, controlled and, despite a fairly liberal use of parentheses (a clear indicator of badly structured writing), flows smoothly. The problem is it’s bland to the point of tedium. Without the wonderful ideas that were present in the Harry Potter books, the writing feels rudimentary and unpoetic; Rowling simply doesn’t have a turn of phrase to fall back on when she has a plot that features only harsh realism. Too often Rowling’s language doesn’t quite find the mark; her point lost somewhere between thought and pen. With a string of odd metaphors and ambiguous sentences, there is undoubtedly a gap of comprehension left for the reader to fill.

The conclusion is a melodramatic set-piece, with a strong touch of The Good Samaritan, encompassing the key moral position. Though the conclusion brings events of great emotional impact, there is a level of dispassionate distancing between author and her creations, which transfers to the reader. This strikes an odd tone in a book that has such a clear moral message, and The Casual Vacancy is at risk of being all morals and no heart. This authorial objectivity might be to Rowling’s credit were it not for the very clear message that she appears to be putting across. The contrast between the passion for the cause and the dispassion for the characters strikes an odd chord, and frankly does not work. In addition to this, even the overarching morality becomes a little confused, with vulnerable / sympathetic characters taking at least their fair share of the blame for events at the novel’s conclusion.

The ending is bleak and forms a scathing assessment of the current state of the nation. There are Dickensian sensibilities here, but the novel is altogether lacking in Dickens’s flair for characterisation or his humour, and inherits instead Dickens’s weaknesses (certainly in his early novels) for overly simple moralistic arguments, and plots driven by improbable coincidences. This is not to say that Rowling’s moral compass is faulty; the message of society’s obligation to the less fortunate, and the distaste one should feel for the small- and narrow-minded opposition that stands in the way, is a good one. But quite simply, it is not complex or searching enough. Whilst exposing a wide audience to such a decent message is surely no bad thing, Rowling could and should have given her readers more credit than to paint everything in such a black and white fashion.

As an aside, Rowling seems here to have an obsession with the female form, breasts in particular. The consistent references become tedious and, were they to have come from the pen of a male author, would almost certainly be called gratuitous.

Perhaps this was a book that Rowling felt compelled to write; a cathartic exercise that she needed to get out of her system before moving on to other things. In truth, if this hadn’t sprung from the pen of the world’s most successful author, it would likely not have been published, let alone stood any chance of selling millions of copies. The sheer lack of ideas is hopelessly disappointing, and one must hope that Rowling’s next work of fiction is something considerably more engaging.

I knew this would get a lot of bad press, no matter what it was like, and so I really, really wanted to like it (I know, I can be a contrarian). But honestly, it's dull, dull writing. Whether you're a Potter fan or not, I'd avoid this.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Casual Vacancy on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Casual Vacancy on Amazon (US)

12 comments:

pagelady said...

Hi, I found your blog because you commented on my Casual Vacancy review! I agree with your critique that many of the characters were hard to picture and keep track of at first. It wasn't until their paths started overlapping more that I could remember who was who. I also agree that the book's message is "not complex or searching enough." I didn't really notice the over-abundance of breast references, though--was it mainly regarding Samantha? I guess I thought it made sense because it relates to her business and it would be an unavoidably defining characteristic for her. I didn't like Samantha as a character, though.

Literate Housewife said...

It was interesting to read your review from a distance from my experience. You make good points throughout. I didn't have the same issues you had with the book, but I think at least some of this can be attributed to reading it in audio. Tom Hollander did a great job with the characters and I found myself drawn in and engaged when I least expected it.

I'm glad to have read it and enjoyed it. I wish you could have, as well. I appreciate you stopping by. I'm adding your blog to my reader. It looks great.

Heather said...

I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this book--I really liked it. I am very impressed with Rowling's ability to go from writing YA for years to writing an adult-themed book like this one.

Irving Podolsky said...

Well Matthew,

I was waiting for this review because I knew you would dissect the book for all it's worth. And you did. And I respect your opinion.

I cannot comment on "The Casual Vacancy" content because I have yet to read the novel. But I CAN comment on the novelist's challenge to equal or top her own huge success.

That's tough.

There's a vacuum left by the receding waves of fame and a gnawing need to get another hit published right away. Sometimes, the internal and external pressure of feeding hungry fans sucks all the fun out of writing. And when the fun's gone, so is the inspiration that connects us to the author's soul.

If this book doesn't live up to her reputation and track record, then expectations about her future work will drop and so will the pressure to crank out another masterwork. Hopefully then, Ms Rowling will find more mental space to get back into the fun zone and recover the magic.

Irv

The Young Book Collector said...

I saw a short summary of what this book was going to be about on my (local)library website, and at the end I was like "where's the clarity" because it didn't really say exactly what the book was going to be about. I don't know, I got the impression that this book was definitely a 180 from the Harry Potter series, and was going to be too broad for me to finish, because I hate "forcing" myself to read through a book that drags. Nice review by the way

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ pagelady

Thanks for dropping by - I enjoyed reading your thoughts too.

I agree that once the characters overlapped they were much easier to picture.

As for the references to breasts, well I should think quite a few were to do with Samantha, but I'd guess there were upward of twenty references total (although I'm happy for someone to prove me wrong), and that for me, is excessive.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Literate Housewife

Many thanks - I hope it proves worth the add :)

I think I'd really recommend this on audiobook - in fact anything with such a wide range of characters would make an audiobook the go-to option for me.

Never the mind, I've still got all the Harry Potter books to enjoy!

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Heather

Glad you enjoyed it. It is quite a leap from YA to Adult. I'm not sure her writing held up, but she certainly threw herself in at the deep-end, taking on so many narrative viewpoints!

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Irving Podolsky

You make a good point about the pressure of following up on such a successful series. For all that Rowling claimed she felt free to do as she wanted, I'm not convinced this is a book that she'd have written had it not been for her previous success.

Hopefully she'll deliver us something better next time round, when perhaps her creative spirit will be freer.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ The Young Book Collector

I'd agree actually - there was so much secrecy about the plot, and so little explained in early reviews that I really went into this not quite sure what to expect (which is no bad thing). In my head though, I'd expected something a little quirkier, more like Hot Fuzz (the Simon Pegg / Nick Frost film).

Me too, I do my best, but sometimes the tedium of certain books beats me.

Neha Sharma said...

After reading about 70 pages, I abandoned "The Casual Vacancy." And then after a year, I recently took it up again and managed to go the whole hog. If you could wade through the first 100-odd pages, you might find the proceedings interesting. Sure Rowling has an eye for details and is a good chronicler of human foibles. But then there are many authors who could write this kind of stuff. It is obvious that Rowling doesn't want to be remembered only as the Harry Potter-author, and "The Casual Vacancy" appears to be her fervent attempt to break free from that image trap. And it shows. The beginning is slow paced and one requires immense patience to read through it all, as Rowling rolls out one character after another, piling details upon details. The middle part is engrossing as the plot thickens, so to speak. But again, the ending is rushed and insipid. The sudden change of Fats is unconvincing and appears forced. The long and short of it is, you should forget that "The Casual Vacancy" is by the same author who wrote the 7-volume Harry Potter series. But then, you wouldn't have in the first place bought this book if it had not been by the Harry Potter-author.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Neha, I think you're right, I wouldn't have read it if it hadn't had 'J.K. Rowling' on the cover. A year down the line and I can barely remember most of the book - not the highest commendation. Overall, I still wouldn't recommend it.