An excellent book about awful people.
Publisher: Little Brown
First Published: 1st January 2012
Date Reviewed: 24th February 2015
On his wedding anniversary (which his wife would tell you he spent writing about the life of a girl on the council estate) Barry Fairbrother dies. The semi-rural town of Pagford is struck by it, tossed into chaos. The death means there’s a vacant seat on the parish council and it seems everyone wants a look in or has an opinion. Howard and Shirley Mollison who are secretly glad their rival is dead; Miles and Samantha Mollison, one running to take the free spot, the other trying to run clear away from it; Colin Wall and Parminder Jaswant who were friends of Barry and want to keep his dreams alive; Simon Price who will beat up anyone who might ruin his quest to be the next councillor; the teenage children who are affected by their parents’ narrow-mindedness; Krystal Weedon who lives on the council estate so many want divided from Pagford; everyone has something to win or lose.
The Casual Vacancy is a long in-depth novel that looks at the way classes are divided, at social and political problems at a local level, and about how prejudice can obstruct communication, understanding, and empathy. Likely to offend or shock (in fact I’d say it’s likely to shock most readers at some time or other) Rowling leaves nothing to ambiguity – she has things to say and come hell or high Pagford river water, she’s going to say them.
It will come as no surprise, then, when I say that the book is character-driven. The potential bestowal of Barry’s place forms the nucleus around which everything else spins.
It is worth mentioning that there are no good characters in this book apart from the innocent – one cannot call the toddler bad, for example, and likewise young Paul Price, eternally frightened by his abusive father, cannot be seen in a bad light either. Everyone else has a degree of hatred in them. You will be satisfied at some point, yes, by certain downfalls, but it must be noted that Rowling’s message, her reason for writing, requires her to expose this hatred.
At the same time, there are positive traits shown. Of course many characters have very little good in them, at least in the context of this novel, but others have a fair amount of goodness going for them. What Rowling does is look at stereotypes – this is where we initially acknowledge the offensive content; Rowling takes the stereotypes and runs with them. The stuffy, backwards-thinking white-majority middle class country residents? Check. The council-house-and-violence definition known by an acronym? Check. It can be quite difficult to read this book – more at the beginning when you’re not sure what Rowling’s point is, of course, especially as Rowling is so honest. She writes the accents, the ones we all know, the stereotypical speech patterns. She discusses the exclusive meetings and fake niceties, the drugs and the poor home environment. Abuse, self-harm, infidelity, health. The communication problems between children and their parents, parents not thinking of the affect their choices have on their children.
But then you’ll find the author is far from finished. Rowling shows the good side to both sides. She shows what can happen when the closeted look beyond themselves. She looks at the way poverty and hardship isn’t clear-cut – at how it’s often any endless cycle, at how people try to better themselves to no avail when the ‘other half’ won’t let them in. Certainly there is more ‘good’ time spent on The Fields, Pagford’s detested council estate, but then that becomes what you expect. It becomes what you expect even if you acknowledge what the residents of Pagford are saying (acknowledge but not quite accept). Yes, there is the sense that Rowling has a clear side she wants to win, and she’s not afraid to state her piece in the face of potential backlash (backlash that seems to have happened if articles are anything to go by) but there is never a metaphorical stride in. Rowling doesn’t break the fourth wall so much as remain beside the journalist who sits on the sidelines of the council meeting. Rowling’s primary goal is to make you think, and think hard. What’s really worth arguing over? What’s the worth of one person compared to another? And, of course, where much of the situation is so similar to arguments in real life, it is all the more important.
As for the characters themselves then, they are very believable. As well as the accents and realism it’s easy, at least if you’re familiar with the varying cultures (this is where I acknowledge that my Britishness may have aided my reading), to create the image in your head and supply any details that Rowling may have left out. You inevitably create a stereotype but, as you’ve probably guessed by now, again that’s the point and another way to make you uncomfortable. This creation will work no matter who you are; the diversity is yet another purposefully included element.
And if you can get through the hatred there is a lot to like about The Casual Vacancy. Rowling’s writing is fair. The attention to detail is meticulous. The amount of time each character gets is equal to the others. The issues are written without apology, in a way your Victorian melodramatic matriarch would find intolerable. There is reward for persevering, and whilst the ending may not be quite what you expected (it certainly surprised me), you’ll close the book with enough to work out the final message Rowling wants to leave you with. Ambiguity takes its place, but Rowling often withdraws its invitation at the last moment, the writer making use of her character’s personalities for a gain they would despise. Whether you agree with Rowling’s thoughts or not is of no consequence – the important thing is that she makes you think.
Political and very damning, The Casual Vacancy is one you’ll want to set a time for rather than sit down with on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. And whilst you’ll be sticking your finger up at the most basic etiquette by choosing such a time, it’d be hard to say it isn’t worth it.
February 25, 2015, 5:57 am
This one is sort of in my to-read list. After all, it’s J.K. Rowling! But … it’s not the kind of thing I’d normally read. It sounds good, though.
February 25, 2015, 5:01 pm
I’ve never had the greatest urge to read this book but I have recorded the TV adaptation to give a go. I am glad you found it to be a good book.
February 26, 2015, 7:40 pm
I’ve yet to read any of JK Rowling’s books. I’m torn between diving into the HP series or starting with her adult books.
March 1, 2015, 6:37 pm
It was as hard for me to get past the unpleasantness of all the characters as it was to understand the class society references and the British political situation in this book.
March 1, 2015, 7:14 pm
I remember reading this as soon as it came out. The story and characters I quite enjoyed, but the writing style made it a very strange read.
It felt like reading Harry Potter, but with swearing, which ruined the mood. I think her writing style in the Cormoran Strike novels is much better.
March 3, 2015, 12:55 pm
Belle: I would say to approach it with caution if you’re looking for something to follow HP, because this is a completely different kettle of fish. If it sounds good to you, though, that could trump that issue.
Jessica: It is. I did give the adaptation a go but the first several minutes were unrecognisable so I’ve put it on the back burner for now. The enjoyment is too fresh.
Nikki-Ann: I’d say opt for HP, not just because it’s what made her name but because it’s a lot more fun. That said, if the subject matter of TCV interests you, that may be better.
Jeanne: Yes, it is very British – I’ve wondered how readers from other countries would take it, because there are so many nuances in there, and I haven’t read many reviews.
Alice: Hehe, yes, I can totally understand that. I think it’s been so long since I really read HP that my reading was helped in that regard. I did keep wondering why I wasn’t thinking of HP, though.