The Casual Vacancy: A Readalong, Part I

This is the first 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, that long-awaited, uber-secret book of JK Rowling's, has been on sale for a week now. Time flies, don't it? Reviews started flooding in the morning of the release, and critics, in general, were not particularly fond of the novel. Some were even downright cruel. And so when I started The Casual Vacancy, it was with more than a little bit of trepidation. Was it really as bad as all that? Was I setting myself up for disappointment? WHAT IF I DON'T LIKE SOMETHING ROWLING HAS WRITTEN!?

Luckily for me (and for everyone within earshot while I was reading this), I could not disagree with the critics more. The novel does start off slowly, introducing new characters every couple of pages, but this feels both necessary and intentional; Rowling, yet again, has imagined a complex world that requires some settling in.

We learn first of Barry Fairbrother's early death (that's not a spoiler -- it happens on about page 3), and then are left to watch the rest of the small town of Pagford hear the news for themselves, the story rippling through the town from one ear to the next. And Pagford is the epitome of a small town, practically a characterization of itself: every one knows every one else, and the daily grind of the town seems based on gossip and hearsay and that ever-churning rumor-mill. Something like the death of a Parish Council member is big news, folks.

What I found most touching about the first half of The Casual Vacancy is the skill with which Rowling captures the far-reaching impact of Fairbrother's death, ranging from those who long for his seat on the Parish Council to those who are forced, of a sudden, to question their own mortality. The funeral scene, which does not come until we are 150 pages into the novel (despite the dude dying on the aforementioned page 3), is at once absurd and heartbreaking, laughable and sad:
"Two pews back, Colin Wall was sobbing, with small but audible gasps, into a large wet handkerchief... Tessa [Wall] was scared of what the loss of Barry Fairbrother would mean to the man beside her; scared of how they would manage to accommodate this huge, ragged absence... And all through Tessa's anxiety and sorry was threaded the usual worry, like an itchy little worm: Fats, and how she was going to avert an explosion, how she would make him come to the burial, or how she might hide from Colin that he had not come--which might, after all, be easier."
Rowling's language is simple and plain, but with her words she manages to convey big truths about everyday life: what is it to be an adult driven by greed and self-interest, or an adult driven by love and passion; what it is to love and what it is to hate; what it is to grow up and try to understand the crazy, fucked-up world we live in. One of the biggest criticisms of the novel was it's obsession with the mundane, but to me, that's what's made the book so interesting so far--like life, it is full of the mundane (I'm also reading Emma at the same time, so perhaps I'm just particularly drawn to life's little details at the moment).

I'm move on with great hopes for the second half of the book. Have you read it? Agree with the critics? Disagree? Like it? Love it? Hate it?


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Literary Musings
Book Riot Review GPA
The Blue Bookcase
The Book Case


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


  1. Like you, I have high hopes for the second half of the novel. As you mentioned, there were so many characters introduced in the first half, setting up the scene and establishing the complex community. Now I'd like to see what she does with all this! I am expecting great things :)

  2. I'I agree that her fascination with the mundane is what makes this story. However, I don't completely believe these actions are normal or necessarily life-like. It's almost like one huge dysfunctional family spilling their guts. I think it's a little farfetched, but understand her pulling out the characters whose intentions are less than noble. It's interesting to see how everyone reacts to Barry's death and the ways people respond to questions of their own mortality. Some of the characterizations seem a little banal. However, I still have hope for the second half of the book! Right now, I'm just having a hard time returning to it with all the other books I have around!

    1. Life-like may be too much of an overstatement, but I do think they are realistic -- just overdone examples of real life to prove a point.

  3. I liked the first half better than the second half, I have to say. When I got to the midway point I was thinking hey this is not Harry Potter but I could be on board for this anyway. I kept hoping everyone was going to turn out to have unplumbed depths of non-hatefulness.

  4. I'm really enjoying it so far, and I wonder how much of the bad reviews are due to the critics' inability to judge it separately from her previous books. The universe in Casual Vacancy is so small - one town and one city - whereas in HP the entire magical world was up for grabs. I think Casual Vacancy is (so far) succeeding in what it's setting out to be - a story of regular people with ordinary problems made worse by the hostility in their small town.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on the rest of the book next week!

  5. I am one of the readers who actually ended up loving it, for all its darkness and sad moments. In looking back at the reviews, I'm stunned by the harshness of it, and it really is evidence of the fact that some reviewers really were ecstatic to jump into the fray to finally shred Rowling to pieces. But, I found it to be remarkably honest and genuine in its portrayal of hypocrisy, crushing social systems that limit others' ability to help because of excessive rules, and destructive choices that come from well-intentioned people. I'm so happy I read this early on!

    I can't wait to read what you think of the second half! I could not stop reading and finished the book Tuesday.

    1. I ended up powering through the second half as well.


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