Review: The Casual Vacancy

I first read J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy in 2012, when it debuted to little acclaim as her first non-Harry Potter work of adult fiction. Since that time, I’ve read numerous other books, including the Hogwarts series a few more times, and though I couldn’t remember all the minutiae of the novel, I did remember loving it. And I distinctly remember being disappointed in the majority of the literary world, which had cast a surly glance at Rowling’s novel and stamped off in an entirely different direction, without so much as a backward glance.

(Okay — maybe reception for the novel wasn’t that bad . . . but I felt personally slighted on Rowling’s behalf, and I hadn’t even written the book.)

I figured — why not give it another go? I’m all about reading enjoyable books over, and over, and over.

The Casual Vacancy is a novel of painstakingly-crafted layers. From the start, the reader is bombarded with a number of characters and storylines to follow — a feature that I realize is a turn-off to many readers. Admittedly, the first 50-100 pages fostered a love-hate relationship as I read: I became enamored with the raw characters, but found myself frequently flipping back to review some previously released nugget of information about Fats, or Krystal, or Colin. This is where most people give up — they don’t want to struggle to follow the storyline, and I can’t blame readers for that. However, if you trust the writer, you will later thank her for the web of lives she has spun. (See what I did there?)

The story takes place in Pagford, a fictitious parish in England that lives separately but quite irritatingly in the shadow of the neighboring city, Yarvil. Deep-rooted undercurrents of bitterness flow from Pagford to Yarvil, particularly in regards to a small addiction clinic and low-income housing development that Pagfordians no longer want to acknowledge as part of their community. In time, the citizens of Pagford (and Rowling’s readers) ultimately learn (or continue to quash their realizations) that poverty and addiction isn’t all that it seems.

Rowling’s propensity for multi-faceted characters and interwoven storylines is crucial in the development of Casual Vacancy, where no detail goes unnoticed. As I reread the novel, I found myself recalling snippets from the first go-round . . . but still I plowed through the work eagerly, savoring every unforeseen twist of fate that led the strikingly different characters onto one abysmal, downward-spiral of a path. I marveled at Rowling’s ability to so adeptly portray the carefully constructed public personas of her characters, in direct opposition to their usually far-less-desirable home personalities. (Sukhvinder and Colin, for example.)

This story is not Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It is not mythical or magical or even remotely gratifying (in the traditional sense of the word). The tale is not for children, or for people seeking a follow-up to Rowling’s first round of genius.

The Casual Vacancy is, however, a gut-wrenching exploration of morality in politics and community. It is a tale of lives closely linked, despite physical distance or age or economic status. The book is a magnifying glass held to the callous pores of a global society that values the separation of poverty and wealth, young and old, personal responsibility and public burden. Rowling’s novel begs the reader to ponder his or her own code of ethics as she dares to ask:

  • Does responsibility for individual choices/actions ever shift from personal to societal? 
  • Just how far will you go to protect your own interests? 
  • How far does your empathy for mankind extend? 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars – highly recommended.

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