Book review: The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyI belong to the generation who grew up on Harry Potter, owned all the books in the series and read every one of them at least twice. And yes, I was one of those who felt sad when the last book was published in 2007. (Leave in the comments box below if you also grew up with Harry Potter!)

Upon hearing that J.K. Rowling was going to release a new adult fiction, the kidult in me knew I had to dig my fingers into it. But “The Casual Vacancy,” as I realized, is no Potter fantasy. It is a book about real life, where every page and every character uncover dirty things about our world and the ugly side of humanity.

Set in the small English town of Pagford, the sudden death of popular parish council member Barry Fairbrother sparked off a war during the subsequent election campaign to replace his vacant position. Families pitted against one other, wives plotted against their husbands and a whole range of backstabbing incidents gave the novel a cringe-worthy factor.

“They had made their lives, Fats thought scornfully. The victims of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother were mired in hypocrisy and lies, and they didn’t like the exposure. They were stupid bugs running form bright light. They knew nothing about real life.”

The overall mood of the book is black and dark, which seems to have extended from the death theme that permeated the last “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” novel.

JK Rowling's The Casual VacancyI was particularly disturbed that the story constantly picks into the brains of the characters to articulate their uncensored thoughts, of which, many are rather unsettling. For instance, one of the characters Samantha Mollison, who is a wife and a mother of a teenage girl, would always be fantasizing about members from her daughter’s favorite boy band.

“Samantha imagined herself nineteen to Jake’s twenty-one, slender-waisted again, taut curves in the right places, and a strong flat stomach of her own, fitting comfortably into her white, size ten shorts. She vividly recalled how it felt to sit on a young man’s lap in those shorts, with the heat and roughness of sun-warmed denim under her bare thighs, and big hands around her lithe waist. She imagined Jake’s breath on her neck; she imagined turning to look into the blue eyes, close to the high cheekbones and that firm, carved mouth…”

For me, that was too much information shared even though they are true reflections of Samantha’s frustrations with her marriage, career and life direction. As one of the typical characters in the book, who is a less than perfect, disgruntled ordinary person, she is ironically too real for the fictional literary world.

This might be a book about small town politics but is also a microcosm of the ecosystems we are living in – a friend struggling with addiction, a lover who never loved us or strained ties with our loved ones.

There are no happy stories in the book, only happy or unhappy problems for the characters to deal with.

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42 thoughts on “Book review: The Casual Vacancy

  1. First: What a great review 🙂
    Second: I totally agree with you, there is no happiness in The Casual Vacancy and sometimes it’s quite difficult to read. It took me a long time to finish it and currently I’m reading her new novel the cuckoo’s calling and it is different.
    Even though I didn’t grow up with Harry Potter, I am absolutely crazy about it and read each book at least seven times ;D
    As I was too young when the philosopher’s stone was published, my first Harry Potter was the half-blood prince right after it was published – even though I couldn’t understand everything I fell immediately in love and began to read the other five books so I could understand the entire plot.
    That’s how I became hooked on Harry Potter 😀

    1. Wow… you do sound like quite a big Harry Potter fan. I haven’t even read a Potter book more than thrice and you’ve did it at least seven times! Great to have a fellow Potter fan on this blog (:

      1. Oh my, thank you for this compliment 😉
        I’m just very very keen, some might say addicted, of Harry Potter. And I read all the books in my native language german first several times and than several times in english.
        Harry Potter is the kind of book I’d like to take out my shelf and read in anytime. You’re never too old, it is never boring and I have always a great time, while reading. There are only few books which affect me that much. 🙂
        Great to have a fellow Potter fan to talk 😀

  2. Potterhead for life! I tried ‘The Casual Vacancy’, and it was fairly good, but I didn’t finish it. But Harry Potter’ is a series I’m not forgetting anytime soon! I grew up on it too!

  3. I’m also a HP fanatic and had read all 7 books. I never tried reading The Casual Vacancy and maybe I never will. My expectation from JK Rowling is quite high given that HP series is my all-time favorite. Plus, the reviews were not encouraging.

    1. If you do love Rowling because of HP, The Casual Vacancy will be quite a letdown to be honest even though it spots her trademark style for multi-character plots and distaste for the media.

  4. As a Potter fan (also part of the generation that grew up on the books) I was SO stoked for this book to come out. I checked the library catalog everyday to put a hold on it. And I started reading it. And I HATED it! Far too dark for my tastes. I tend to identify too strongly with the characters in the books I’m reading, so The Casual Vacancy left me a tattered ball of stress! I think I’ll stick to my contemporary romances, and leave the drama to real life.

    1. If you love Harry Potter, I would recommend that you check The Casual Vacancy out as a postmortem work in JK Rowling’s post Potter world… Just don’t keep your expectations too high!

  5. Read the book and loved it! It was a great story of life, and how not everything in life has a happy ending. It was a truly realistic book. Easily my all-time favourite.

    SPOILER ALERT: the ending really made me think that it takes a casualty to bring people closer and to make the community of Pagford stronger. Highly recommended book!

  6. With the review and varied comments, I’m not sure how I will feel about The Casual Vacancy. I have read the first six HP books, currently on the final book. Yes, it was written simply and I agree that Rowling is a great storyteller, but not necessarily a great writer. I will find out more about her writing style – and I hope I can get through this book.

    1. Would love to hear from a fellow Potter fan what you think of her new book because as you could see from the flurry of comments that there certainly are quite diverse opinions out there (:

  7. I just got finished rereading my Harry Potter books and have been eyeing The Casual Vacancy as a follow up. From what you and others have been saying, it sounds like I may need to try something else.

    One question: One of the things I loved most about Harry Potter was the “British-ness” of combining fantastical elements with everyday bureaucracy. This is a trait I have seen in many British authors, like Diana Wynne Jones and even (with murder instead of magic) Agatha Christie.

    I think Rowling lost that feeling in the later Harry Potter books as the plot became more concerned with the war against Voldemort. Do you think Casual Vacancy has that quality?

    1. The Casual Vacancy is quintessentially a British book where it is set in a small fictional town in England to describe the bureaucracy and intertwined relations amongst the local people. Unlike her later Harry Potter stories that focuses on the dark side of the magical world, this book is grounded very much on small town politics. This book vaguely reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, where the old lady detective is always solving her crimes in small English villages. The Casual Vacancy certainly has the ‘British-ness’ element you are looking for.

  8. Grew up with Harry Potter, fell in love with the books and it basically kicked off my reading habits. But…yeah, looking back, they are simply written. JK is a great storyteller, not a great writer. It’s okay when there’s a solid story to tell but I thought Casual Vacancy fell really flat. A lot of people I know who loved Harry Potter really didn’t like it, and I agree with them. I don’t think it would have been published if she wasn’t already so well known and famous for Harry Potter.

    1. Yeah, wouldn’t dispute with the part that many of us were drawn to The Casual Vacancy simply because she was a famous author. But I felt that her simple narrative in her earlier Harry Potter books was what made her children books tick, but unfortunately, her style evolved to what we have today. Your thoughts?

      1. I think you’re right. Every time I re-read the early HP books I feel like a little bit more of the magic is lost. But once you hit, say, the forth book onwards (and POA still remains one of my favourites) you can see her writing evolving, becoming stronger. The books gain more depth, more story, a better style overall. That evolution felt like it disappeared with Casual Vacancy. It felt like she squeezing a lot in. And she did really well with a large cast in HP, but it didn’t feel like it worked here.

        And I grew up with kids who lived on a council estate. It really annoyed me how she showed the estate. Even when it was from the POV of other characters, it felt like every scene in the estate itself was almost reinforcing the stereotype the prejudiced characters held, and I didn’t think that was she was going for. It was a very simplistic view of some complicated topics.

      2. Yeah, in The Casual Vacancy, she was trying hard to include a whole bunch of characters and their trivial bits into the storyline, which bogged the story down and bore some of the readers. On another notes, thanks for stopping by my blog and sharing your opinions!

  9. I grew up with HP, and read this as soon as it came out. I didn’t really think much of it; as someone said above it felt like she was trying too hard. Harry Potter was a fantastic story, but the writing was fairly ordinary (there are other verbs besides “mutter,” for example), and I found the writing a little weird in this too. Her tendency to tell massive paragraphs in parentheses, for example, was really distracting and I thought it was a bit weird. In the end I thought it was an average book; nothing spectacular, but it still reads, and you get into the story.

    1. Rowling’s got some pretty big shoes to fill after her Potter years and she’s delivered an ok book that unfortunately failed to live up to the expectations of her Potter fans.

      Her writing in “The Casual Vacancy” seemed to have lost the simple narrative that drew young and adult readers into her early Harry Potter books, which is a pity. Instead, she tries to chuck in as many details as possible in this book with an array of characters and these long paragraphs in parentheses as you’ve mentioned break up the overall flow of the story.

  10. I absolutely loved this book because of how deep it goes into those characters’ messed up thoughts. Personally, I think it was a great commentary on how happy communities are inevitably going to corrupt themselves.

    It reminds me of a play. When I was in high school, my school’s theater program put on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which is a play about a few small-town neighbors falling apart when it is revealed that the death of one family’s son was (indirectly) caused by the father of a woman who plans to marry their son. (If this isn’t 100%, sorry, it’s been a little while, but the effect is still the same.)

    SPOILER: At the end of the play, the father of the affected family is so overwhelmed by how his family has fallen apart and how greatly things have changed because of people attacking one another and such, he shoots himself. It’s a wake-up call to the audience and for me it struck me like… That could happen to anyone.

    Something small could lead to something bigger and grow to tear apart communities and end in tragedy. And that’s why I think the Casual Vacancy was good. It takes a town of normal people with normal problems and strips them down and tears them all apart in front of you, where things were always tense they implode. I think it’s an excellent commentary on private life vs. community.

    When I finished the book I found myself sitting there a little dumbstruck.

    1. Exact sentiments. I was drawn in by the author’s name but found myself sputtering as I read the book. Too many little stories that were not pieced together until much later in the story. But if you could try persisting till the end, you’ll look back at the overall book and think that it’s a fairly decent read.

  11. I started reading the book twice but gave up on it both times since its seemed boring and never ending. I thing minuscule, insignificant details of the characters made it so. Maybe someday I’ll complete it.

    1. I was bogged down by all the insignificant details too, particularly because these details at times were disturbing. But in a warped manner, it was still interesting to read into the uncensored thoughts of others because they are rarely accessible by us, don’t you agree?

    1. This is book is at its core not entirely a bad book, however as many of the readers here have commented, the story is made up of a smorgasbord of minuscule and trivial character details that makes it difficult to trudge on at times. The writing reminded me a little of John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom series.

      I took a long time to complete this book because it got boring after a while. Yet upon finishing it, I found the overall story still readable and worth a look.

  12. I grew up with Harry Potter books too.:)
    The casual vacansy awaits in line. Probably I read this when I wll go abrod for some time.

  13. I didn’t think a lot of this one, it just seemed that she was trying too hard to distance herself from the Harry Potter universe at the same time as trying to ride the wave of the public’s obsession with sexual scandal that made that 50 Shades rubbish such a damned success. Like a lot of novelists, Rowling isn’t a great writer, but is a fantastic story-teller; there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s becoming a common trend these days for people in her position to dive into dark and ‘deep’ story-telling while trying to pass it off as sophisticated writing. I loved the HP books, I’ve read them God alone knows how many times, but I’d much prefer J.K. to admit to herself that she’s something of a one-trick pony, and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. Look at an author like Bernard Cornwell, whose books invariably involve historical battles which all follow the same formula of ‘good guys start by losing/hero turns to the ride/suddenly good guys are unstoppable’. Or even my favourite writer of all time, George MacDonald Fraser (who was a genius storyteller as well as fantastic writer) never really distanced himself from his Flashman universe by tying in other novels to it by including Flashman’s relatives or the man himself as an aged secondary character (as in Mr. American, and if you’ve not read that book, buy it immediately). I’d much prefer Rowling to return to Harry’s universe, since I think it’s really where her strengths lie, and since she spent so much time and effort skilfully weaving the Potter world, I think it’s an injustice for it all to end so abruptly and continue only in the trickle of limited new information available on her Pottermore website or in interviews. So many franchises have expanded universes (Star Wars, Stargate, Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories or Martin’s Ice and Fire series) I don’t see why Rowling shouldn’t do the same. It would certainly be better than this offering.

    1. No doubt that Rowling was trying her best to divert herself away from the simple, straightforward prose that defined much of the early part of the Harry Potter series. Even before “The Casual Vacancy,” I’ve already felt that her last two Potter books were adopting overly dark themes that seemed to drift further and further away from the simpler magical fantasy world that the series started off with. And for all the years of effort that went into building up the Potter world, it is a pity, especially for Potter fans, to know that she’s abandoned the fortress for something else.

      Yet her foray away from the world of magic and fantasy with this book is not entirely a disaster. It has a slow build-up composed of trivial details from various characters but at its core, it’s still a decent book written by an author who has some big shoes to fill.

  14. Reading Harry Potter books at least twice would be an understatement. Haha! I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, but it’s on my to-read list. 🙂

    1. I am a big Harry Potter fan. It was one of those books that got me hooked to reading. The Casual Vacancy has been sitting on my shelves since a month now. I just am very apprehensive about reading it. Is the book gripping and worth a read?

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