Thursday, 11 October 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Readalong Part Two)

This review is part of The Casual Vacancy Readalong, which is being hosted by Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm and Brenna at Literary Musings.  This is the second of two posts, the first of which was the non-spoilery early reaction post of last week.  This post is the full review, so it will be more in-depth than last week.  I'm not going to post the entire plot or ending, but I will speak more about themes and events than last week (though in a generalised way for the latter).  (Also, I feel really bad for not replying to the comments on the first post - part of that is because I didn't want to spoil, but mostly because I still wasn't sure what I thought. Hopefully this answers some of the matters raised in comments last time, and I'll definitely reply to the ones for this post as now I can stop wondering how far people have got in the book).

Published: 2012
Pages: 503 (Little, Brown, 2012)
Read: 27/9/12 - 29/9/12

Synopsis: The idyllic village of Pagford is ripped apart by the local parish council election and the hostilities, hypocrises and prejudices it brings to light.  The election is seen as a means of finally enabling the council to reassign jurisdiction of the Fields, a council estate that borders the village, to the local town, thus removing the pollution of the estate from the village.   

Review: As I said in my first post for the readalong, I'm really not sure how I feel about this book (even now, two weeks later).  Thinking about it in a bare bones, structural way: the beginning is a little confusing, as there are a lot of characters introduced in a short space of time; the middle is really good as she explores everyone's characters, hypocrisies and prejudices, and applies that to society on the whole; and the ending slips into Dickensian melodrama with a death which is obvious pages before it happens.  Yes, sorry, that's a bit of a spoiler but there are deaths in this book (it's JKR, that's how she rolls) and one of them is very obviously an example of how people can get so caught up in their own problems and reliant upon their own prejudices that they fail to perform an act of basic goodness which could, ultimately, save a life.  Even as I was reading it thinking "oh, no, not even Jo would do that" I knew what was going to happen because it felt inevitable.

I think that that is my problem with the novel: that the ending feels tacked on yet inevitable.  That may not make much sense, but that's how it seemed to me.  There are so many amazing moments in the book, and so many pithy descriptions of how people are that made me think "yes, that is so true!  That is so well observed!" that the ending was a let down.  The book really excels when showing people - especially teenagers - as they really are that the ending came as a huge disappointment, because it didn't seem to gel with what the rest of the book was doing.  As Julie Myerson said on The Review Show last week, it's jarring to go from a comedy of manners to tragedy, and I think that was my major issue with the book.

As for the politics - and there has been a request for my political rant, though I'm still not going to give it as it descends into Father Jack-style swearing - I think the novel was spot on about how many people view the poorer people in society, especially those living in places like the Fields.  Those sections seemed genuine, and as if Rowling was writing from her own experience of living on benefits.  Given what George bloody Osborne has been suggesting this week - slashing benefits rather than taxing the rich; basically taking from those with little so that those with plenty are left feeling happy with the government (which is presumable the whole damn point, mustn't upset your mates)* - I think this was a very well-timed novel.  Although it was started under the Labour government, it is particularly applicable to the coalition, and it scares me that Rowling was originally writing in reference to what the Tories were doing in the early 90s rather than what they're doing now.  I'm not sure how many people's minds will be changed - I've seen some reviewers on the right panning the book (though the main one I saw is someone whose opinion I wouldn't trust on whether milk had gone off) - but I still think it's important that it was written, and that J.K. Rowling is saying these things.

(Hmm, that last paragraph may contain a cleaned up version of my political rant).

To sum up - if I ever will, I could go round and round on this book - I would definitely recommend reading this book, not just because it's "what J.K. Rowling did next" but because it says some important things about the state of Britain today.  Of course, I may just think that because I agree with a lot of her opinions, but I do think it's important that this book was written.  Though that may be why I didn't enjoy it as much I could have done: it felt too much like an issues book, with an ending that served to make a point rather than tell a story, for me to enjoy it as a piece of writing.  As a damning critique of modern society it is excellent; as a novel it is flawed. 

Rating: 7/10

* I also like that he isn't going to go through with a "mansion tax" - essentially taxing homes worth over £2 million more - because too many people would be affected.  I don't know how many people George knows whose homes are worth over £2 million, but I don't know any.  It must be nice to live in a world where everyone has plenty of money and nice big houses.


  1. "As a damning critique of modern society it is excellent; as a novel it is flawed."

    I agree with this. I think JKR is very skilled at showing the core of her characters through their actions, and in this case there were few characters whose actions proved them to be entirely good people.

    The biggest difference between Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter, to me, is that in HP the characters fit neatly into good and evil, and in Casual Vacancy the characters are both more flawed and more real.

    Love your review! This readalong was a lot of fun.

    1. I think you're right about the biggest difference being the ease of categorising characters as 'good' or 'evil' in Harry Potter - this is also played out in not everyone getting the comeuppance they deserve in The Casual Vacancy. There were some characters I really wanted to suffer and yet they were fine! Gah!

      This readalong has been so much fun, and it's nice to have met other bloggers through it.

  2. Jo,
    Thanks for participating! And I especially enjoy your political "rant" because I think it's really what this novel was digging at. I've seen it compared to the current situation with the US political division. From that point of view, alone, I really enjoyed it. It was almost like a message of, "yes, it's easy to get carried away in this small town drama, but think about what we're overlooking." And then multiple that by 100.
    I found myself really getting into a little over the halfway point. I wasn't sure how Rowling was going to bring it all together, or what way the miserable characters functioned, so it was almost suspenseful in a way. The ending did come as a shock to me, but probably because I didn't want it to happen. I kept thinking about Robbie being left alone and people ignoring him, but I just didn't see him wandering and then drowning. Rowling packs a lot in this novel so it was pretty ambitious. It wasn't one of my favorite titles of the year, but I think Rowling is an incredible writer and I look forward to more of her work.

    1. Thank you for hosting the readalong! It was fun to do and I've met some new bloggers which is great.

      TBH, as soon as Robbie was left alone by the river I thought "right, he's going in. No, wait, not even J.K. Rowling would kill a child. Wait, what am I talking about? This woman loves causing pain through character death, he's going in". I didn't see the sequel to the death coming, but I did think he'd drown. J.K. Rowling, making me convinced a child is going to die (cheers, love).

      And I definitely agree about looking forwards to more of JKR's work; if she publishes, I'll buy and read.


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