“The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling (Little, Brown, 2012)

The Casual Vacancy
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After the unfathomable success of the Harry Potter series, with over 450 million copies sold worldwide, likely making it one of the biggest phenomena of our lifetimes, J. K. Rowling is now back with her first new book in five years.  She now turns to a much more adult story about a quaint little English town where everything is most certainly not as it seems.

In the idyllic west country town of Pagford, where things pass at their own pace and everything stays pretty much the same, a change is about to happen.  A respected citizen of the community, Barry Fairbrother suffers a sudden brain aneurysm and dies unexpectedly.  It is a very sad time for the family and for the community, as he touched many lives during his time, as well as being an important member of the town’s council.  But Barry’s passing is also the lighting of a spark that sets off an explosive chain reaction, as the empty space on the town council starts many wondering who should fill his seat, and a number of unlikely candidates come out of the woodwork.

The Casual Vacancy is also the story about a number of the characters of this community, and how they begin to act and react when this person who had an effect on their lives is gone and is no longer there to provide aid and advice.  The book is by no means a happy novel, as these characters make terrible decisions that lead them down a downward spiral of despair.  By the end of the book, the reader is left hoping their might be some sort of cathartic uplift, but Rowling is going for a harsh true-to-life approach here, where things don’t all of a sudden get magically better.

Overall the book comes off as a letdown, slow and dragging at points, with nothing to drive the reader along to keep reading, as things get worse and worse for just about everyone it seems.  Rowling is perhaps pulling from some earlier experiences in her life before her fame and riches, as there are characters dealing with drug addiction, poverty, marital problems, and a whole host of unsavory issues.  The book also comes off somewhat amateurish, as Rowling constantly references many places throughout this imaginary town that confuse the reader, and could have easily been aided with a handy map at the beginning of the book.  Then there is the large host of characters, featuring many couples of about the same age, some even with the same first letters of their names, which often makes things confusing, and could’ve been helped with a simple cast list.  Finally, there is the constantly switching P.O.V. from paragraph to paragraph, without any break in between, so that the reader becomes quite untethered and lost at times.

The Casual Vacancy was an experiment by Rowling in seeing what happens to a town when an important member dies and all the people he’d had an effect on begin making bad decisions that then effect the rest of the town.  By the end of the book the reader is sad over the events of the book, though Rowling makes it clear that if any of the characters had made the decision to not think of themselves for a moment and to notice that nearby person suffering and help them, things would have come out quite differently.  But because this social message is buried in the clunky format and pitfalls of the book with no satisfactory resolution, the reader is left wondering what was the point of reading this book to the last page.

Originally written on January 8, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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