Review: ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K.Rowling

The title’s a bit of a lie: this isn’t going to be a proper review as such. Maybe a musing is a better title? Either way, I won’t touch on too many key details in the book because a) it’s a spoiler minefield and b) there are TOO many strands to this story to do justice to every single one (especially without spending hours on this!).

What I love about J.K.Rowling’s proclaimed ‘first adult novel’ (I’m sure many many adults read ‘Harry Potter’ so where the definition divides is debatable) is how it started off as one thing and ended as another. The death of Barry Fairbrother is dealt with quickly and without compassion in the opening chapter. Yet by the end, you are mourning this man because of his undeniable strength, boundless love and compassion, and his unrecognised role in so many lives. So yes, this is billed as a tragicomedy, and is peppered with both throughout – though by the final chapter, despite the glorious return to the rowing oar flowers and Rhianna’s ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’, it is perhaps a well-established tragedy.

This was a novel that would have been so easy to give a ‘happily ever after’ development to. And does Rowling give us this pleasure, this karmic justice? No. What we get is a gritty reality: drug addicts cannot magically reform, tragedy cannot be averted by an unwitting act of kindness, those who deserve damnation are left free to live their lives while those deserving compassion fade into the dust. The best example of this is the Weedon family; let’s face it, we cannot be presented with a drug addict mother, a mouthy and uncontrollable daughter and a neglected toddler without making judgments. Yet Rowling subtly and gradually breaks down these prejudices, making us resent the people who have them within the story and thus reevaluate our own position. Even, on a wider scale, it could be said a challenge is made to our own attitude within society – whether on a microcosm like this, or on a universal scale. The most poignant and heartbreaking example of this is Robbie Weedon – how many people could have helped him in those final chapters, and how many people rushed past hoping someone else would do it?

The one criticism (and it ebbs away by the middle of the book) is the attempt to be ‘adult’ in the opening chapters. I’m not prudish or squeamish, but the use of sex, swearing and general underhanded behaviour is a bit too extreme – it felt like Rowling was trying a bit too  hard to put the clean teen world behind and move to the dark underbelly of the world. This is achieved anyway throughout the book, so the excessive nature of the aforementioned elements are needed to make this adult – the plot already does this!

That said, this book really touched me. I closed it and couldn’t stop thinking about my own position in their events. Who did I side with? What did I think should have happened? Why (oh why) is life SO unfair?? So the break from fantasy, teenagers and magic worked: J.K.Rowling delves into a world so complicated, devastating and, at times, hilarious that she leaps away from her original caste and shows us what talent on a page is. This is a story that’s anything but casual, and absolutely breathtaking.

PS – ‘The Casual Vacancy’ has been commissioned for a 2014 BBC series – I’m so excited about this, I think it will be an interesting adaptation!! 

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