[Review] The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Published: 27 September 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown Company
Edition: Australian Hardback
Summary: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.”
First there is something that you must know, before you go out to read The Casual Vacancy, and that is that this book is an adult book. Not just an adult book that you will find in the general fiction area of your local bookstore or library but an adult book containing adult content that you would not want your thirteen-year-old sister reading. J.K. Rowling has set aside her magic wand and delved into the world of a small town named Pagford where the poor expect a drastically reduced life expectancy and where the rich, or rather ‘comfortably affluent’ live for the challenge of being better than their neighbour.
Upon opening the book I was a little thrown by the difference in style. No matter how many times reviewers and Rowling forewarned us to expect an adult novel from the greatest children’s book author of all time, actually reading this magnificently diverse book was a different kettle of fish altogether. I am 22 years old, about the average age of the first generation of Harry Potter fans, and therefore in the grouping of people who went early to the bookstore on Septermber 27th and immediately bought a copy. Having read the book in two days I can say with absolute certainty that if you are in your early 20s you can read this book and take some powerful messages from it.If you are younger then probably not, if you are older then you should give it a try too!
I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly. I would liken it to reading a biography about a person struck by some terrible disease or misfortune. You don’t enjoy books like that but you find them interesting and worth reading because they say something about life and the human body. Essentially The Casual Vacancy drew me in because it offers up a truthful piece of our existence on this earth. I don’t and have never lived in a small English town but we have all known our fair share of the Mollisons and the Princes. I was particularly struck by the character of Simon Prince, who I believe is someone we would all not admit to knowing in real life but probably do. The tragic thing about this book is that while these characters seem to live dull, absurdly selfish lives they ring true to the kind of mundane existence many of us lead. If we are not trying to be better than our neighbour, we are trying to be better than our friends, or family or workmates. I can’t tell you how many fully grown adults I know that consciously or subconsciously spend every hour of their day gloating about themselves, trying to do things to make people believe they are ‘coming up the social ladder’ and always offering up a story that can beat the one you just told. We are all guilty of this and Rowling artfully weaves through a host of characters who are guilty of many things of which conceit is one.
Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy deals with sexuality in an upfront and explicit manner that I found rather refreshing. Sexual acts and desires are so often hidden away in books and films because it is not considered ‘appropriate’ but most of us are sexual beings who have desires from teenagehood and sometimes earlier. The sexual awakening of teenagers is a topic that I think everybody will relate to when reading this book, wondering perhaps, ‘How did J.K. Rowling know the thoughts I had when I was fifteen?’. Drugs and the affect they have on disadvantaged families is one of the strongest messages that you will take from the book. Characters such as Krystal and her mother will have you swinging from feelings of disgust to feelings of pity. The exploitation and dreadful existence of the poor and drug abused lead to some tragic endings that will leave you in tears within the last 50 pages of the book. The sad truth is that stories such as Krystal’s are unfolding every day.
I can’t say that it wasn’t a struggle to get through the book, although I did finish within 48 hours, it is slow-going. The characters are all flawed and it is hard to care when the reader doesn’t have a ‘hero’ to cling onto. But for those in the process of reading and thinking of giving up, I urge you to hold on until the last 50 pages because the events that transpire will make the journey worth it.