Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling (and Readalong, Part II)

This is the second of two readalong posts for The Casual Vacancy Readalong over at Literary Musings and co-hosted by Beth of Bookworm Meets Bookworm.

The Casual Vacancy was panned by most of the big critics, with some reviews (NYT, I'm looking at you) bordering on downright cruel. So I went into this readalong with more than a little bit of apprehension. As I mentioned last week: WHAT IF I DON'T LIKE SOMETHING ROWLING HAS WRITTEN!?

Which is precisely the wrong way to go into this book, because it is not like anything Rowling has written before. In that it has no pointy hats, no wizards, and no clever and convenient spells to make real life--or real wizarding life, at least--just a little bit easier.

Nope, this is a book of real life cast in the harshest and most unforgiving life, focusing on the small town of Pagford and the far-reaching consequences of a local Parish Councilor's premature death. Through Pagford, Rowling presents a scathing portrait of the small-town rumor mill, the destructive power of gossip (and of secrets), and of the often devastating consequences of meddling in others' affairs--be it through local politics or public shaming or illicit romances.

The world of Pagford residents is mundane, bordering on banal, but to me, that is precisely the beauty of The Casual Vacancy. Thought epic fantasies (yes, insert inevitable Harry Potter comparison here) can teach us a lot about ourselves and human nature and the forces in our real lives, so too can the most boring of everyday details: the bully at the local high school, the anxieties of an insecure wife, and the family struggles of a single mother raising two children in deep poverty. Are these the most fascinating of subjects? Perhaps not--but they are important, nonetheless.

Similarly, Rowling's characters at first seem overdone, perhaps characterizations of themselves--but just as the characters in the office are far-fetched and yet reminiscent of real co-workers in real offices, so too are Rowling's characters far-fetched and yet familiar.

Perhaps it is merely a question of timing, because I started reading Jane Austen's Emma while also reading The Casual Vacancy, but I found unmistakable parallels between the two novels. They are set in different time periods, and are written in completely different styles (there's no chance of one mistaking Rowling's pen for Austen's, of course). But they do so in a way so subtle that only those that can see past the "blah-blah-so-and-so-said-to-so-and-so-and-Jane-Fairfax-wrote-a-long-letter-and-Barry-Fairbrother's-wife-is-sad" retellings that can appreciate the art of what both Austen and Rowling have done: highlighting the most important social issues of a time and place through the most normal characters one can imagine.

I'm not saying that Rowling is on par with Austen--that's a literary argument I am not prepared to make or defend--but I really did enjoy The Casual Vacancy and the questions it raised as I read it. Rowling's depictions of the hypocrisies of adulthood, coupled with the stumbling, idiotic, but often well-meaning attempts of adolescents to find their way into that grown-up world, is at once poignant and important; if you can manage to forget that Rowling also wrote Harry Potter, and embrace the sex, cruelty, and drugs in her first novel for adults (key words: for adults), this should be one you can enjoy.

P.S. I'm sorry that this is less a review and more a defense of The Casual Vacancy. Except I'm not really sorry, because I'm really disappointed to have seen/heard so many people questioning it before reading it based solely on the initial reviews, which still feel completely unwarranted to me. It may not be the Greatest British Novel of all time, or even of 2012, but it is, in fact, a solid, well-written, and thoughtful book. [Steps off soapbox.]


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Book Jay
Book Riot Review GPA
Bookworm Meets Bookworm


The Casual Vacancy | JK Rowling | Little, Brown, and Company | Hardcover | 512 pages | September 2012 | Buy from an independent near you


  1. Kerry,
    I still haven't got around to reading all those reviews. I wouldn't let myself prior to reading and now that I've finished I'm just letting it settle before diving into that mess. Honestly, I'm still unsure of what I completely feel about it all. I thought the novel really picked up that last half and I couldn't put it down. I was anxious to see where she was going with all of the characters and their uncompromising misery. When the conclusion finally made its way round, I was shocked. I had missed it, or perhaps wanted to. I'm so glad everyone participated because I was unable to express so much and understand bits and everyone was there to provide their part. So thanks! I think it was way more developed than a lot of novels that I've read and enjoyed for the story. Rowling nailed it with the inner dialogue and life of this tiny town. I especially enjoyed seeing each character from their own perspective and then from the perspective of other characters (think the meeting of Kay and Samantha). Loved it!

  2. I didn't read any reviews before reading this -- I didn't want to poison my brain or go into it with expectations -- and I made sure not to expect a new Harry Potter book. I was afraid I would hate it hate it, and I didn't, but I definitely didn't enjoy it. About two-thirds of the way through, it became exhausting to continue, and I really wished I didn't have to finish it.

  3. Firstly, thanks so much for linking me ;)

    I'm worried I may have been one of the people who panned the book a little, although in my case I read it before forming an opinion and my problem was with the execution of what Rowling was doing rather than with what she was saying. I don't think it's a Great Book, but I am glad I read it and I do think it's solid.

    And I definitely agree that JKR is, like Jane Austen, looking at important issues of the day through the lives of ordinary (though often terrible) people. It's really important that this book was written, and equally important that she wrote it.


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