Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Casual Vacancy: A Book Review

There will be NO SPOILERS in this review. Enjoy! (:

When I heard that JK Rowling would be releasing a new adult book I was ecstatic. It wasn't until two weeks before the release of The Casual Vacancy that the thought of disappointment even occurred to me. Until then I assumed the book would be a hit and that it would be a new love. So when I finally got the book in my hands, I was all kinds of anxious.

I finished the book a few days ago, but was finding difficulty in putting concrete words down. I still don't feel like I've reached the point that I can accurately assess what I think about every aspect of The Casual Vacancy, but I'm hoping that in forcing myself to write this book review, I can come to some sort of conclusion.

So as you can probably guess, this book review will probably be more of ramblings on my thoughts as I read The Casual Vacancy and less "review-like." If you really don't want to read through all my thoughts, sorted completely at random, than feel free to skip to the last section that's titled "Final Verdict." It'll be the quickest possible summary I can provide of my thoughts on The Casual Vacancy.

(photographed: JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy)

Despite that disclaimer, I always have to start off with the inside-cover description:

"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 facade 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?"

So let's start by talking about a quick comparison to the Harry Potter series, so I can hopefully put the topic mostly (not all) to rest for the remainder of the review. 

So this is rather embarrassing to admit, especially since I spent some time in my Coraline review bragging about how amazing I am at neutralizing expectations when reading a book with a lot of hype surrounding it, but I found it nearly impossible to do it with this book. Because if there's one word that accurately describes how The Casual Vacancy relates to the Harry Potter series, it's DIFFERENT. Don't read this book hoping that all the characters you dislike turn into death eaters, or that the "ghost" is probably a friend of Nearly Headless Nick. Andrew will not be learning that he is a wizard and his life is about to change forever. That's not how this world works. And you will get nothing but disappointment in keeping those expectations.

Next, I want to mention the writing style. JK Rowling's style has become very familiar to me and I was reminded of descriptions in Harry Potter (see, I told you I couldn't avoid the H word for long). While I think her descriptions clearly paint a scene and the emotions of those in a scene, at times I found it to be a bit dry. It made me realize (sadly) that JK Rowling's writing style was never part of why I loved her books so much. She managed to create a magical world filled with characters that I fell in love with. However, take away Hogwarts and the magic goes with it. This isn't meant to be a bashing of how horrible JK Rowling's writing is, because it's not that at all. I thoroughly enjoy her writing, but just felt it a bit dry, mostly at the start of the novel. Rowling had several bursts of poetic writing that simply made me yearn for more.

Which brings me, in a rather illogical fashion, to my next point...

As I read the book, I had siblings and friends continuously ask me what I thought. I repeatedly responded with the vaguest answers I could think of. "It's hard to tell yet." "It has potential." "Not bad so far." At one point, when I used the "it's hard to tell yet" line to my sister, she looked at my holding the book and said "aren't you half way through the book already?" And she was right. I was half way through the book, and I was scared to admit that at that point, I didn't really like it much at all. I definitely did not hate it. It just wasn't great. So the main point I wanted to make when I started this paragraph is that the book started off slow. Each chapter jumps to a different set of characters with a different limited-omniscient point of view. I actually had to sit with my notebook next to me and jot down how characters were related to one another in the beginning.

I mentioned previously that when I was half way through the book I didn't even know if I liked it at all. So now that I've finished it, you probably want to know what I thought of the book as a whole.

As soon as the "ghost" (just a nickname, not a real ghost) joins the story, I liked it much more. This probably happens somewhere in the last third of the book. So I definitely took time to warm up to it, but at that point is where I found myself much more invested in the story of the Pagfordians (a word I just coined). My interest in the book picked up at this point.

And before I get to my thoughts on that remaining third of the book, let's talk about characters, since this book definitely has it's fair share. The "main cast" of characters in this book, and by "main" I mean the ones who's internal thoughts we actually get glimpses of, comes to more than a dozen.

This book is composed of various families with Pagford, each with their own issues. At the start of the novel, I felt virtually nothing for most of the characters. In a way, it was like I was moving to Pagford and on first glance everyone was either pathetic, cruel, lying, or just boring. But as I read further I was surprised with which characters I liked most. So, give them a chance. They could surprise you too. One funny connection I made when reading was with the two highschoolers, Andrew and Fats. I won't say much about them other than that they are best friends. The connection I made was to Colin and Hassan of An Abundance of Katherines. Probably not relevant to the overall review of this book, but I found it funny how I even thought of that pair. Because, to be quite frank, I love Colin and Hassan. And somewhat dislike Andrew and Fats. Though I didn't personally like most of the characters of the novel, I don't find that at all necessary in having a good book. JK Rowling's cast of characters each became very real. Maybe it was this realistic quality that made me dislike them so much. It was almost like that they had too many human faults.

My thoughts on the ending:

I stretched out reading The Casual Vacancy as much as I could. Because I knew that if half way through the book, I didn't feel any emotional investment, then the ending is all that can save it. So I slowed down my reading, to savor what could be the books last hope of redeeming itself to me. But I had to read it eventually. The ending, literally, gave me goosebumps. The last few chapters, I couldn't take my eyes off the page and my heart felt heavier. It wasn't the ending I expected, and I guess you could also say that it wasn't the ending I necessarily wanted. I was angry. The good kind of angry. (Quick explanation. Bad angry: when a book is so horrible you're angry you wasted your time. Good angry: you've become emotionally invested and moved by the book). I was surprised with how much I physically and emotionally reacted to the end of the book. And quickly following my anger, was relief.

Final Verdict:

The Casual Vacancy is a book that made me anxious in anticipation, disappointed upon starting, and pleasantly surprised when finishing. It was a roller coaster of a read, primarily due to JK Rowling's connection to Harry Potter, a series that I have spent over half my life with. Overall, I am very happy I invested my time in this book. I always truly appreciate a book if it can contain at least one line in it that makes me unconsciously feel something not related to the words on the page. The Casual Vacancy, to me, was a book about searching for that oasis in the desert (cliche, yes, but what person, despite their age, doesn't yearn for that drop of water that makes them feel there is still reason to wake up the next morning). Maybe it's not really there. But to tell yourself that it exists, despite the fear and possible knowledge that it isn't, is something I find truly unique to mankind. The Casual Vacancy opens you up to the ugly side of mankind. It's that harsh reality that you don't see in Harry Potter. Maybe the word "harsh" shouldn't even be used. It's just reality.

"But who could bear to know which stars were already dead. Could anybody stand to know that they all were?"


  1. I also knew you were reading this and separated my phone from me in the sheer anticipation of accidentally asking how you like the book so far. I kinda knew it would time time to separate the current JK Rowling writing from the childhood-associated JK Rowling writing...and I also knew you'd put up a review so I waited~

    "The Casual Vacancy opens you up to the ugly side of mankind."

    This is 2nd in my list now~ How you make my list grow. (1st is the book about Running from Murakami, it's going to be delivered to me soon!!)

    1. Yay. That's all very exciting. Maybe it'll be a more objective reading for you. I've been really wanting to hear opinions from those who either haven't read Harry Potter, or from those like you, who only read a few and really weren't die-hard fans.