The Casual Vacancy was J. K. Rowling’s first book after Harry Potter, and her first adult book at that. Because of that, I know many people went into this book expecting certain things – expecting this book to have the same magical place and story even if there might not be any actual magic. I didn’t go into this book with that sort of mindset, neither was this my first of her books other than Harry Potter – I read her crime novel The Cuckoo’s Calling just last year. But I will say this book underwhelmed me. There were definitely things I liked about it, but overall I felt the execution lacking.
The story is set in a small suburban town in England in present time. One of the members of this community, Barry Fairbrother, dies within the first chapter or so – and the rest of the book is sort of the aftermath of this incident and how it affected the community. His death happens right in the middle of a political struggle between two sides in the town, the people who want to keep Yarvel within their community boundaries and the ones who don’t. Barry, being one of the representatives for the yes side, dying creates waves of change within the political structures, throws the whole community into chaos, and generally affects the lives of many families – many of which we see throughout this book.
I’ve heard people call this book slow paced and a character focused book. I’ll say yes to the first statement – this is definitely a slow burner. The main reason for this is I think the fact that it’s mainly made up of smaller events and dialogues and meetings that build up into the full picture, and also things that happen earlier on lead to consequences further in the book. It’s told in an unhurried sense, shifting perspective between characters more frequently than chapter headings, even within the same page. The character hopping is something you get used to, though I think it might be a negative for some readers.
However, I wouldn’t call this a character study. The reason for this is that rather than it being about one or even a few characters and their lives, it’s more about the community and the communal relationships, the dynamics within the community, the shared lives of these people and their families. Yes, the characters rather than any sort of plot is the focus – the Jawandas, the Mollisons, the Fairbrothers, etc. – all of these families that have their own issues and their own structures within themselves but also the way the families and the way each individual interacts with other groups, other people, and other settings. The group dynamic is the focus – which is what I liked most about the book as a whole. It was filled with drama as small communities are probably bound to be filled with, delightfully so. It’s also gratifying to see each piece of the puzzle – of the community – come together as you start to get to know the people in the town, start to recognize them in the text and to set them apart, to paint the town and become a part of it.
But another reason I think the book feels so slow paced also comes from the previous story telling technique or focus – the fact that the community is in focus and the perspective changes so often, makes it harder for you as a reader to get to know the characters, and to care for them. It takes a much longer time to feel acquainted with any of them, and even to the end the only character I truly cared for was Suhkvinder. Every time I felt a strong emotional response from reading this book was when I was reading her parts, I cried at least twice and found it a bit hard to keep reading the second time even though I was nearing the end of the book and wanted to know how it was going to wrap up. But for me at least it took a really long time (long time like about 400 pages) to start feeling like I knew these people, to feel like I was there, to care about anyone or anything – to not just be amused but to feel like I wanted to root for someone, or want to read more of someone. Basically I feel it shouldn’t take more than two thirds of a book to start caring, and I would probably have given up on this book had I not read so much already.
As for the writing, it’s actually very easy to read. J. K. Rowling’s prose isn’t much to comment on. I feel she’s a pretty good story teller but the actual writing isn’t noteworthy, same as with The Cuckoo’s Calling (I haven’t read the Harry Potter books in English so I don’t dare comment on them). The language has very little beauty in itself, and sometimes she goes for the easy or the expected even in story telling – but there were instances of interesting writing, like when she kind of doubled dialogue with inner thoughts. Every other line would tell the story that is going on in a present dialogue and then one of the characters inner thoughts in that same time would be interwoven in the dialogue in parathesis. I thought it was an interesting way to really reflect how interactions with other people actually look like, even her dialogues – when people cut each other off, is definitely more accurate than much dialogue I’ve read in my life.
I still think The Casual Vacancy has its strengths and reasons for reading it, although it’s up to the reader to decide on the whole caring-bit, if you’re willing to stick with it or not. Or you might not have any problems with the caring at all – if you’ve read the book, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.
Until next time, happy reading!