Monday, 27 July 2015

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling


I'm going to be honest: I wasn't expecting to like this book. I was expecting to be wildly disappointed in the lack of magic, and in the departure from the extraordinary world that is the Harry Potter universe. I was expecting to feel betrayed by the very idea that J. K. Rowling, the woman who wrote a series of books that had been fundamental in shaping my childhood, had dared to jeopardise the credibility of said universe by revealing that she was, in fact, merely a writer, by actually writing something else.

But I'm glad to say that none of my fears materialised and I enjoyed this quaint little book (I say little, it's over 500 pages but definitely very quaint) a great deal. Granted, my childhood was ripped to shreds when I spotted the first use of the f-word, among many other unexpected bombshells - but I soon realised that J. K. had decided to go all out with the shock factor and luckily the impact wore off after the first fifty thousand occurrences.

The book begins with the death of one Barry Fairbrother, a man in his early forties who dies unexpectedly of an aneurysm, ultimately triggering the events of the rest of the book. This is because he held a seat on the Parish Council of the tiny, picturesque English West Country town of Pagford - and as soon as this casual vacancy in the council appears, the other inhabitants of the village either rally their forces to continue his work or seize the opportunity to take his place, resulting in two opposing factions.

What I want to know is why my school didn't include this as an English set text for the theme of 'family and community ties' that we were assigned over these past two years, because there are some seriously complex and many-layered bonds between families and communities in this novel. The relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and new members of the community are stretched to breaking point, directly or indirectly because of the divisions that occur as a result of the council election. At one point I actually had to sit down and draw a diagram showing all the links between the characters because I was losing track of their respective family groups, their alliances and above all where they stood on the central bone of contention that divides the town: the matter of the Fields housing estate and the question of its continuing association with the village of Pagford versus the nearby city of Yarvil. This whole issue is immensely complicated so I won't go into it to much, but it really is central to the story.

What struck me most about this book was how accurately J. K. Rowling captured the essence of a small, rural English town and its inhabitants. To draw perhaps the only possible comparison with Harry Potter requires returning to the opening paragraphs of The Philosopher's Stone, which I have included below for your convenience:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense. 
Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blond and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

Add a generous helping of adultery, abuse, drugs, jealousy and mental health issues and you have the decidedly more grimy vibe of The Casual Vacancy, but the nitty gritty is essentially the same. Pagford is a small town where everyone knows everyone, and everyone is concerned with everyone's business. News is a currency, and people store up gossip and wait until the right moment to deliver it with maximum effect. Long-established political factions engage in subtly-veiled warfare in their bid to take control of the council and decide once and for all the fate of the Fields estate.

This novel, terrifying in its ordinariness, is quite an extraordinary feat. Rowling takes such a mind-numbingly dull idea and setting, and over the course of the story manages to deeply invest the reader in local politics and fictional feuds, to the extent that I found myself eagerly anticipating both the outcome of the election and the new council's first meeting afterwards. Poorly written, this book would have been incredibly tedious and boring - but as it stands, and in the highly capable hands of the author, The Casual Vacancy is a curious mix of comfortably familiar, scandalously realistic and oddly thrilling. Above all, it offers a fascinating insight into the intricacies of human nature: the characters are so real, their thoughts and passions so absurdly commonplace and relatable, the setting so nondescript, that the town of Pagford could quite easily be any small country town. But that doesn't stop the intricate web of loyalties and vendettas the author weaves between the inhabitants of Pagford being any less fascinating.

I read a review somewhere that claimed the pacing was slow and that it only picked up around page 300. While I don't disagree, I think the first more slowly-paced section is necessary for all the characters to be introduced and to establish the rhythm of daily life in Pagford. Action or adventure are not words I would ever use to describe this book, but there is a certain sense of crescendo in the final chapters as it builds towards the epic conclusion (which left me feeling a bit teary, I have to admit).

All in all I very much enjoyed The Casual Vacancy (I gave it five stars on Goodreads), but I'd be wary of recommending it to everyone. If you pick this up thinking it's going to be like the Harry Potter series in any way, I'd suggest you think twice and at least read the blurb before starting it. If the story of a small town appeals to you, go for it, but don't read this just because J. K. Rowling wrote it.

Please let me know if you've read The Casual Vacancy and what you thought of it!


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