The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowling
In the absence of an Irish author, I decided to review a British author because there’s nothing quite like honoring one country’s heritage like honoring their oppressor for hundreds of years. I kid. Moving on…
As a Harry Potter fan and literary fiction snob (OK, I do read and enjoy some genre books–Harry Potter and more), I knew I had to read The Casual Vacancy even though it was being panned by many critics. I don’t know how many warnings Rowling and her team had to give to the media that this wasn’t Harry Potter for adults, but apparently there weren’t enough because plenty of reviews hinted at a certain amount of confusion at the lack of robes and wands. This is very funny to me because the notoriously private Rowling did a ton of press before the book was published; people should have known what to expect, and if they didn’t believe her, it’s on them.
I suppose I can understand why some people don’t enjoy large literary fiction tomes, but, really, everyone should love this book. The Casual Vacancy is an intriguing character study of the prominent and notorious citizens of a small but proud British village. (Is it redundant to describe a British village as small and proud?) Rowling thrusts her readers into the lives of Pagford’s citizens, including the so-called First Citizen down to the widely-regarded lowest citizen.
I will admit that as I approached page 100 I was still confused by who the characters were, how they related to each other, and, most importantly, who hated whom. After contemplating the usefulness of a pictorial guide to Pagford’s alliances (my version would be lovely with hand drawn images of how I pictured the characters, solid lines and dotted lines in varying shades of red and blue to indicate dislike and like, but I can’t draw), I realized that the confusion about who the people are and who they dislike can be likened to the confusion a new small-town citizen would feel if they were learning about their new surroundings by bits and pieces through gossip, which, let’s face it, is how it always happens.
With just one seemingly simple sentence, Rowling is able to cut right to the core of her characters and reveal who they truly are, warts and all. And, let me tell you, there were truly plenty of warts in this small town. “Christians” who were more concerned about appearing to be Christians than by acting like Christians, pretensions, addictions, they’re all here in some form.
Through the story she tells, it’s obvious that Rowling understands small towns, but, more than that, she understands people and she understands their motives. Small towns just allow people’s best and worst characteristics to be more obvious to others, so the setting helped Rowling tell the story.
Writing 4.5 out of 5 stars
There were some points in the book where I didn’t think the writing was as strong as it could be, where transitions maybe didn’t occur in the best spots, but overall, Rowling’s writing was solid. As I said earlier, she really can get to the core of someone’s motivations with just a few words. That takes well-developed skill.
Storytelling 5 out of 5 stars
While some people will, of course, disagree with my rating of storytelling, I stand behind it. There is a story here; the narrative does build to something. It just may not be what everyone wants, and it doesn’t have the big climax that genre readers are accustomed to.
Character Development 5 out of 5 stars
My high rating for character development really ties into the high rating I gave for writing. This is, after all, a character study, so the strong writing, naturally, resulted in strong character development.
Plot Structure 4 out of 5 stars
There is absolutely a plot here, but it isn’t really strong, and it flips from between the different character’s perspectives of current events and then a flashback pops up. It really works to tell the story, but it does seem confusing.
Cultural Impact 3 out of 5 stars
There’s no doubt that this won’t have the cultural impact that Harry Potter did. No book probably ever will, but, being by the same author, I believe it will have a lasting impact. After all, the story has already been optioned by the BBC for a miniseries.
Total 4.3 out of 5 stars
Have you read The Casual Vacancy? What did you think?