Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Casual Vacancy [minor spoilers below]

I received J.K. Rowling's first "novel for grown-ups," The Casual Vacancy, for Christmas.  Last night, I finished it after deliberately spreading it out over several weeks.  This is, after all, J.K. Rowling, so sitting down to read one chapter inevitably turned into sitting down to read several.  But several was always enough, and I often let days go by before I picked the book up again.  I even made sure never to read before bed because I was scared of what my subconscious would do with the story while I slept.

It is impossible to write a book review about Rowling without mentioning the Harry Potter series, and yet it seemed to be her ambition in writing The Casual Vacancy to make any comparisons as difficult as humanly possible.  This new book is set in a drab, lifeless English town, which is filled with dark and selfish people, not a one of whom is particularly likable. 

The story opens with the death of a local councilman, Barry Fairbrother, and unfolds around the hole he left in the community - both the literal hole he left in local government and the figurative one he left in the lives of the story's many characters.  Through flashbacks, he is shown as perhaps the most respectable and earnest of the town's citizens, but he was hated as often as he was loved, and chaos descends without him.  (I've read several reviews of this book and haven't yet found any other mention of the coincidence of Rowling writing a story in which a [semi-]heroic figure named "Barry" encounters tragedy and subsequently serves as the focal point around which a war is fought, but surely I can't be the only reader who noticed...)

But Barry is merely a shadowy background character to the larger issues of the book.  The story is about those still alive - parents who put their own needs above their children's, children who torment their parents and each other, people with gross habits, obscene vocabularies, violent tendencies, and, above all, an endless obsession with the self that causes each and every one of them to harm themselves as well as those in their immediate (and not-so-immediate) vicinity.  There are graphic descriptions of abuse, of sex, of drug use, of rape, of self-harm, of self-loathing, and of death.  It is, in short, not a fun group of people to read about.

Well-written, difficult to read, I can't imagine any story that could more clearly separate Rowling from the Harry Potter world, and I feel this was probably something she needed to write for herself as an antithesis to all she had previously created.

As a fan of hers, though, it is my hope that she's gotten all of that out of her system now, and that the next book she writes offers a gentler and more hopeful view of human condition.


  1. I started the book but did not finish it. I agree with your assessment that Rowling was determined to separate herself from the HP story as much as possible and she succeeds. However, I found the book dense and difficult to read. No one had any redeeming social value and I did not care about any of them.

    If someone other than Rowling had written it, I wonder how much attention it would have received - if any.

    Let's hope for her next book she relents and writes about Harry Potter: The Grown Up Years ;-)

    1. I had the same thought about this book getting attention without her name on it; I know that I wouldn’t have continued reading it had she not been the author.

      In fact, I’m not sure why I *did* keep reading it, except perhaps just curiosity to see if it was going anywhere. (And, honestly, it kind of didn’t.) I felt she hit her stride about a third of the way in and the writing itself carried me through the disturbing things she was writing about, but nonetheless. I think this will be one that lives out its natural life on the bookshelf and probably doesn’t get read again.

      (And haha, AGREED on the next book. IF ONLY!!!!)

  2. hmmm, haven't read the book ... but from your review and coffeecats comment I'd say she wrotes about humans as they are.

    Annie Sasha

    1. In my naïve optimism, I have to believe that depravity isn’t as universal as it is in this book. There were certainly some very, very realistic scenes about things we don’t like to think happen in real life, and yet there really wasn’t anything to counteract that, as there often is in the real world. I wanted to smack most of the characters in the book and tell them to just get their fucking acts together (and hopefully if any of these people were real, there’d be someone in their lives to do just that!! :)).

    2. okay ... I started this comment like a dozen times - I feel lost in translation, in terms of grasping the "real" meaning of some words.

      I just shut up for today and might come back tomorrow on this.

      Annie Sasha *ducksoutinshame* x)

    3. Oh, no! I didn't mean to confuse the matter or offend you! :( I'm so sorry...all I was saying was that you were very right about the people in the book being the way people really are, but that my complaint with the book was that there weren't any *other* kinds of people in the story. I just like to believe that not *everyone* is quite so awful as those characters... I apologize; I don't think I worded it the best way!! :)

    4. Don't you worry at all - you didn't offend or confuse me or the matter. x)

      I am deprived of my sleep and have to much drama in my life currently... doesn't help at all.

      Sometimes it takes a while for me to understand if my interpretation of a word is the same as the on of a natural speaker. And that's what I was trying to say.

      I failed blatantly. Sorry :(

      Now, that I read both your comments I understand what you wanted to say - and it was very well said in the first already.
      But my brain got lost along the way yesterday.

      Annie Sasha xox

    5. Well, it certainly doesn't help that I often use words in a way that would confuse anyone, even people whose first language is English!! (In fact, I have even confused *myself* from time to time with my own words.) Definitely don't apologize. :) And sorry that things continue to be stressful for you. :-/ HUGS!!!

  3. Annie Sasha - I have to say that Becky confuses me all the time - and English is my first language!!! hahaha ;-)

  4. lol - I do that too, confusing myself in my own language, sometimes.

    thank you . hugsback

    lol coffeecat ;) - then I am in good company huh???

  5. You are indeed in very good company Annie Sasha! xx oo