The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown & Co.
My Rating: 3/5
Description (from Goodreads.com):
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
I should start this review off by saying my opinion on the book is heavily biased through my experiences. Pagford, the Fields, and the people involved all resonated with me. I could connect with almost all the characters in a way that so-and-so reminded me almost perfectly of someone I know personally and bits of myself were in some characters. However, all these connections are part of a time in my life that I really hated. I hated the people that I was reminded of, and all the bad situations I have either experienced or known someone close to me that had experienced them.
Themes/issues in the book include drugs, poverty, prostitution, LGBTQ issues, spousal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, the different parenting types, self harm, achievement vs failure, power, revenge, love, racism, and many, many more.
So let’s talk about the characters. There are plenty (a whole town’s worth, really), and at times it was very difficult figuring out who was related to who and what shop they worked at and why did all of this matter anyways. That run-on sentence highlights my thinking process while reading this book. Gossip is what brings the characters together (or tears them apart).
Krystal Weedon stood out to me immediately because she has a rocky relationship with her mom, has to look out for her little brother, and shares the same name as me (Crystal). Not to mention, her best friend is Nikki, which is the same name as my childhood best friend. I would argue that Krystal is one of the main protagonists of the story. She really captured the phrase ‘your actions have consequences for others,’ both as the perpetrator and the victim. She was tough, swore constantly, always tried to find a solution, and always was looking out for her little brother. She reminded me of myself, 10 years ago. She built up this defensive wall to protect what was most important to her – her brother.
Parminder was another character that captured my attention. As a woman of colour and a doctor, she was an interesting character. Her husband was also a doctor (heart surgeon) so together one could argue they held a certain amount of power over the community. Despite that, Parminder was constantly criticized and these accusations were further propelled through small town gossip. I was happy to see a family that wasn’t white, but I wish there were more in the story. There were two black families in the small town I grew up in, so I understand there is an element of realism here. I liked her character because she was a very intelligent person that made rational decisions. As pure small town virtue, because she was so smart no one bothered to listen to her. I think we have all been in the same situation – trying to convince someone ignorant that they are wrong is next to impossible.
Moving on, the pacing was very slow. The book is 500 pages and it felt excruciatingly slow up until the last 150-200 pages. The rest of it was just build up, and frankly, I don’t think the end result was all that shocking. I could see the ending coming a mile away, but I don’t think I would have changed anything about it. It is realistic and ties everything together. Although it wasn’t a “wow” moment for the reader, it was in the book and that is all that matters… right?
The writing was not what I was expecting. JK Rowling must have had a thesaurus open next to her because so much of the writing had awkward words that the average person wouldn’t know, and the descriptions were tedious and long. I remember there was a thick paragraph devoted to stating that it was raining outside. Some could argue that this was a literary device used to set the mood of the chapter or whatever, but the same could have been said in much less – i.e. ‘It was raining.’ I have heard people complain that she made the book ‘too adult’ in that the writing contains vulgar language all over the place. I found it realistic from my experiences, so that didn’t bother me. I guess it depends on how you grew up.
I’ve been harsh on JK Rowling, but the truth is there are a lot of redeeming qualities about the book. She managed to create an entire community and its inhabitants. Not to mention, all of these inhabitants felt like real people with real problems. It is understandable that she needed the space to build it all up. The idea behind the book is one that I hadn’t come across before and it made it feel like the same could have happened in my own town. The intricate nature of the plot line must have been extremely difficult to flesh out, and I commend her on her efforts.
All in all, if a different author had written this book I would have probably stopped reading 50 pages in. I kept going until the end because it was JK Rowling and I wanted to believe the end would pay off. In a way, it was satisfying but overall my impressions are a bit bleak. I don’t loathe the book, but I definitely don’t love it. It brings back a lot of bad memories for me, and I suspect that is why I cannot find myself loving it.