Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy book coverI walked out of a large retail store with The Casual Vacancy tucked under my arm. A passerby stopped me, chuckled, and said, “I heard that book is a bore.” I was a little annoyed with him, because I wanted to judge the entertainment and literary value of J.K. Rowling’s first novel written for adult readers myself.

I hope to provide a fair book review for those of you who may want to read the novel.

As just about every book reviewer in the world has stated, The Casual Vacancy is not magical in any sense, meaning there are no wizards, Muggles, mail delivery owls, etc.  Any reader hoping for a fantasy will be sorely disappointed. The Casual Vacancy is a story based in reality, which as we all know can be filled with fraught.

Characters range in sex, age, education, occupation, and status; there are 34 in total. To be honest, it was a little difficult to know who was who at the beginning of the novel. Fortunately, I found a character guide that helped me through the first few chapters.

The characters live, go to school, and work in the fictional town of Pagford or its outlier community, The Fields, about which there is much contention. Pagford is an “idyllic town,” which through earlier political wrangling, finds itself supporting, via tax dollars, the low income neighborhood, The Fields, which is rife with all of the abuses and crimes typically found in impoverished neighborhoods.

After the death of local Parish Councilor Barry Fairbrother (happens in the first few pages of the novel, so I’m not giving anything away), the citizens of Pagford and The Fields experience significant change in their lives. Readers will know far before the characters do where roads lead. I was reminded of other tales centered in small communities (e.g., books: Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird / movies: Chocolat, The Village, It’s a Wonderful Life) where a character’s actions can have great consequences.  The dead Mr. Fairbrother is the only character in The Casual Vacancy to not be morally gray, and perhaps that’s because the dead are often idealized.

I found the story contemporary and relevant, especially when considering the political climate in which we live – the central motif of The Casual Vacancy is the replacement of Fairbrother on the town council. Politics can be ugly in small towns too.

I dismiss criticisms of the novel I have read, such as Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times in which he states, “We do not come away feeling that we know the back stories of the ‘Vacancy’ characters in intimate detail the way we did with Harry and his friends and enemies, nor do we finish the novel with a visceral knowledge of how their pasts — and their families’ pasts — have informed their present lives.”

I’m bothered by that analysis. There are seven books in the Harry Potter series. Of course, there are more back stories! Trust me; The Casual Vacancy provides everything you need to know about the characters.

I equally pooh-pooh the review by columnist Jan Moir, who in the Daily Mail said the novel is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”

Rowling does have a socialist point of view, but it is not that of Ms. Moir. I assume Moir rejects ethical altruism. Rowling clearly points out inequities in society caused by those who are self-righteous and self-serving.

I find I most agree with the reviewer at The Telegraph who lauded the novel: “One marvels at the skill with which Rowling weaves such vivid characters in and out of each other’s lives, rendering them so complex and viscerally believable that one finds oneself caring for the worst of them.”

I imagine that someday we’ll see a small screen adaptation of the novel. It was easy for me to envision the novel as a BBC mini-series.* There would certainly be some juicy acting parts. I advise that you read the novel before it hits the screen. You might find it a slow read, but in my opinion every classic novel (it will be deemed that someday) is a slow read. If you want fantasy, look elsewhere, this is not the book for you.

*I just did a search and discovered that the novel will be a BBC series!