Review: The Casual Vacancy

Being a bordering-on-obsessed Harry Potter fan meant that I was always going to buy any J.K. Rowling book, regardless of the genre or topic.  So, when The Casual Vacancy was released, I snatched up a copy without really paying much attention to the blurb.  I’ll admit, I found the book a little hard to get into.  It feels like there are so many characters to remember, most of whom I found too boring at first to commit to memory, that I had to force myself to keep reading on.

Not that it was a struggle all the way through.  I think I spent the majority of my time with this book swinging between being amused to being utterly shocked that Harry Potter’s mum was writing about sex, drug use, rape, masturbation, porn and had such deep knowledge of so many four-letter swear words.

The story, if you haven’t read the blurb yet or heard anything about it, is as far away from the world of Harry Potter as I think it is possible to be.  It centres around the small, idyllic-on-the-surface town of Pagford, and the death of a prominent member of the community, Barry Fairbrother.  With Barry dying on page two, the story is more about how the town reacts to his death, rather than the character of Barry himself.  Rowling introduces the reader to a set of dysfunctional, desperately unhappy in some cases, families who make up this pretty town.

It wouldn’t be unrealistic to assume that Rowling would feel a certain amount of pressure concerning The Casual Vacancy, her first book since the monumental success of the Harry Potter series.  In an interview for the BBC, she said that, actually, this wasn’t the case; she had nothing to prove with this book.  She didn’t need the money or the fame.

If this really was the case, then was there a specific reason she did not write under a pseudonym?  This may just have been my experience, but I spent the first forty or so pages hyper-aware of the author and who she was, as well as what she had written previously.  Writing, I believe, is unlike acting and music because, as an author, you’re usually invisible.  People don’t have to like you, agree with you or think you’re pretty.  They won’t not buy your book because you have an annoying laugh, or a tendency to blink too much or talk through your nose.

It is thanks in part to its author’s fame and to the hype that was created around the novel before its release that The Casual Vacancy has become much bigger than it, in all honesty, deserves.  It’s a good book, is well written, and has many interesting, engaging characters.  But the hype had nothing to do with this.  It had everything to do with the author.

I did have to force myself to persevere with this book at first, but I can hold my hands up and admit that’s because there aren’t any fairies, vampires or wizards popping into the plot at any point.  The ending – without giving anything away – is arguably a little dramatic.  But Rowling admitted that she used some of her own experiences when living in the poverty which Harry Potter and Hogwarts saved her from.

It may be that she is trying to make a point with this book – about how judgemental we can be about people and their circumstances, which we often don’t understand – and some critics have responded to this negatively.  I, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed the ending, so much so that I stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish it.

And missing sleep is always an indication of a good read.


By Kerry-Ann Kerr

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