The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy begins it’s BBC1 adaptation tonight, so a few of you may be wondering whether or not the book is any good. I first read and reviewed The Casual Vacancy back when it was published in 2012.

Below is my review from three years ago…

So my last blog post was about how Harry Potter and JK Rowling has appeared throughout my personal and professional life. The reason for that was so that I could write this blog about her newest book – The Casual Vacancy – purely on the merits of the book itself.

However, now, as I sit down to write this blog, I wonder if that it is possible – and if it is, should I?

With any established brand – and that is what she is – whether it’s a TV series, a musician or a maker of champagne, there is the expectation on the next product to be as good as the previous one, if not better. Executed badly, they risk devaluing a franchise (various film series spring to mind here), but if it’s pulled off, they can reap huge rewards.

Some might say it’s unfair to judge The Casual Vacancy in comparison to the Harry Potter series, but the truth is a lot of people will buy The Casual Vacancy whether they like the sound of the plot or not, because they are fans of Rowling. Her writing, her characterisation, her plotting and her pacing are hallmarks of her writing, and so must be assessed in terms of both their standalone appearance in this novel, and in comparison to her previous publications.

It would, however, be unfair to compare the impact. Potter was a cultural phenomenon, which The Casual Vacancy will never be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t as good as Potter – or indeed, better.

So, now that I’ve set out my stall, it’s time to actually find out if it was actually any good…

I liked it.

The plot is subtle. It concerns a village – Pagford – on the edge of a larger town, Yarvil – and The Fields – an estate between the two. The parish council of Pagford is split into two factions, those who wish The Fields to be governed by Yarvil – led by the pompous, big fish in a small pond, Howard – and those who wish for it to be governed by Pagford.

The second faction was, up until about page 5, led by Barry Fairbrother, but when he dies, he leaves a spare seat on the council, the Casual Vacancy referred to in the title.

The next 500 pages or so are about the three potential replacements, their families and friends and Krystal Weedon a resident of The Fields and her family.

It doesn’t exactly sound very exciting. It’s certainly no “Boy Wizard and friends defeat Dark Lord by destroying seven split pieces of his soul”.

But the plot isn’t really the point. It’s about the characters and their relationships with each other. It sort of attempts social commentary, but I don’t think it really succeeds – the concept of a parish council in a small village is too far removed from the realities of most modern lives.

What it does succeed in though, is the development of a fascinating group of characters. The characters of The Casual Vacancy – specifically Krystal Weedon, Andrew Price and Fats Wall – compare tremendously well to their Potter counterparts.

These characters seem real and of this world. Harry Potter was never supposed to be of this world, but looking back on him and Hermione and Ron now, they seem a bit two dimensional.

Casual Vacancy is told from a number of different viewpoints, something which helps build the scope of the novel, but which also helps to define the characters and their relationships with each other.

All of the characters are horrible. I don’t think I can look back on them and truly say I liked any of them – but I certainly felt sympathy for them, and I definitely got to know them in a way that, over seven books, I didn’t know Harry Potter (who was always a bit coy over defining his feelings).

Maybe that’s the point Rowling is trying to make – we’re all as horrible as each other, and even those people that we like, our friends, our family, our lovers, if we were inside their head and knew everything they were thinking, would we still like them as much? Probably not.

Like them or not, you get to know the characters so well, that you CARE about the results of the election. It feels tense as you build closer and closer to it until you get there, when suddenly it doesn’t matter any more. From the day of the election, the story spirals out of control of the hands of our characters. A chain of events begins that will likely change the dynamics of the village for a long time, and it is, a little bit heartbreaking.

Not bad for a plot-light book about a local election.

Negative bits:

The Weedon family’s dialogue where Rowling falls into the trap of trying to write an accent. It goes over the top a bit, and reminds me of her writing of Hagrid. Also as a resident (sort-of) of the West Country where Pagford is supposedly located, it reads more as Scouse than Farmer…

Rowling’s over-use of brackets to for explanation of back story (sometimes lasting over a page) is distracting.

Howard and Shirley Mollison while good characters, were also good characters when they appeared in the Harry Potter series. They are Petunia and Vernon Dursley, albeit a few years older. They are Mr and Mrs Muggleton of Muggleville.

That’s about it for negatives.

The book certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s not a page-turner, more of a slow-build, but if you have the time to invest in it, and you have a taste for books from the more literary end of the spectrum then I would certainly recommend giving it a go. Even if you didn’t like Harry Potter. Perhaps, especially if you didn’t like Harry Potter. It’s completely different.

I’m giving The Casual Vacancy a 7.5 out of 10. It is by no means perfect, and it’s not going to change anybody’s life, but it is enjoyable, and it is well written.

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