Monday, November 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy, The Review

And here we thought we'd never get to this point. The review of The Casual Vacancy.

I've posted a few things en route on this book, because reading it was like a journey and on a journey, you make pit stops from time to time. Really, all books are a journey, but this one in particular expanded my horizons. Much like that cross-country drive you take to save money by not flying; there's that mid-drive lull when you wonder 'why on earth did we drive?' until that moment of spectacular view and you tell yourself, 'that's why...' 

The Casual Vacancy has a spectacular view. 

As most people know, The Casual Vacancy is written by super-selling Harry Potter author, JK Rowling. She's the author with the million-dollar idea of a bespectacled magical boy. Literally, a multi-million dollar idea.

With such a platform already built, branching out into a new genre, adult fiction, was a leap someone with her status was able to take without fear of failure. I'd like to believe as an author, she does worry if her work will be accepted or rejected by the masses, but that worry does not include her financial status.

The Casual Vacancy is a triumph for Rowling. Keep writing. Please.

The Novel:
The premise of the novel centers around the death of Barry Fairbrother, who dies unexpectedly in his early forties. Being all of this takes place in the very small town of Pagford, the little idyllic English abode is in shock (apparently, small towns are the same everywhere). Barry was every man's man, and every woman's secret crush. He had a way of ingratiating himself upon people be it with fine talk, a cajoling laugh, or a kindred spirit. He was noted as the living embodiment of a self-made man that harbored no arrogance about it. And his death reveals all the vengeance that has been swept under the rug for years in Pagford because his death leaves an open seat on the council, and political battles reveal the deep demons festering in the hearts of every citizen existing among the cobbled streets and ancient abbey. This empty seat soon becomes the catapult of a full-blown town war. Awaiting with baited breath who will fill this seat takes the reader into the minds of Pagford's citizens from the rich to the poor, the educated and uneducated, and the self-proclaimed high to the very, very low. The book is thought-provoking with regular twists and turns. A solid read.

The Review:
For me, the book started strong. I felt an immediate connection to the characters and even though Barry Fairbrother's death occurs early in the novel, I felt sadness for his departure. This is a testament to the brilliant writing style of Rowling. Too often, authors kill a character early on without establishing a real connection with the reader, and consequently it leaves the reader feeling like they lost only a stranger. Fairbrother's death establishes a thread that winds throughout the novel.

The town of Pagford is well depicted. I can still see it in my mind's eye. It's quaint and charming, but at the same time, cold and gray. Rowling does an excellent job developing the backdrop for the story to include how this backdrop intertwines with the plot.

Her characters are so visceral. She explores the lives of not only the adults in the town, but also the teens and the very real affect they take on the lives of their parents, their teachers, the headmaster, and the counselors. She exposes the viscous cycle of the educated and the uneducated, and blows the roof off the hypocritical alliance the rich people of Pagford have for the poor they "are trying to help."  Her portrayal of the high school students I found to be expertly written as it captured the way I often view the students I teach everyday; and sadly this was not a good thing. I think, as a teacher, it gave me some comfort to know that across the ocean, teenagers are the same. I was beginning to think we only had true pricks in America.

It is certainly true this book is not for children. There is the foulest of language and horrible, depraved depictions of sex. The context of the book really requires you to examine marriage, friendships, and acquaintances in a new way. It causes one to think about trust and how very fragile this is, and it plays to the fantasy life both men and women desire to have amidst the reality they are living in. This book is not for the faint of heart.

The Casual Vacancy is a literary read. It is not fast paced nor action packed, but it is deep. I found there was a lull mid-way for me, but as I pressed on I understood the intentionality of this choice by the author. Real life is not always in fast-forward, and this book is a snapshot of real people, of real life.

In the end, I would give this book 5 out of 5 stars, a rating I rarely establish upon any book. I know I will continue to think about the lessons and depth of emotion created by Rowling in this novel for years to come. That, my friends, is the mark of a good book.


  1. I too am stingy with my five star ratings. I've been on the fence about reading this one, but your review has me tipping further to the side of giving it a chance.

  2. You really have to give it a chance. My 5-start is based mostly on the writing; it's flawless with details far beyond what I see many writers give. It was an emotionally wrought book. It's not a cheery book, but it's emotional. The five-star doesn't reflect a happy ending, but a well-written literary book.