Sunday, 7 October 2012

Adult Book Review: 'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K Rowling

The Casual Vacancy
by J.K Rowling

Published: September 27th, 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Source: Bought From Amazon
Format: Hardback
Pages: 503

Cover Art

A lot of people seem to have a problem with this cover and find it boring and/or ugly. Personally, I think that it is very bold and eye-catching and I adore the font. Red and yellow aren't my favourite colours, but they make this book really distinctive and different.

Plot Synopsis

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 fa├žade 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?

My Rating:

First Line:

'Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.'

Pocket-Size Review

I found this book a little difficult to get into, but once I had really invested in the characters and worked out who was related to who I ADORED it.

Highs: No one is as good at characterisation as J.K. The rainbow of characters is spectacular and my empathy for these horrible people surprised even me. 
Lows: Slow starter. However, with a character driven novel that is bound to happen; until you know the characters well enough it is fairly dull.


This book is all about the characters. If you think the plot synopsis sounds dull you would be absolutely right: it is. It mentions nothing of the vast array of colourful characters that J.K Rowling paints into vivid life, and the fragile web that binds the characters together. The casual vacancy that becomes available on a small town council only serves to drive these characters along, so if you can disregard the dull premise and dig into this book, you can drive along with them on what is most certainly an emotional and extremely riveting ride.

Firstly, I found this book difficult to get into at first.  It requires initial patience and perseverance because, as I said, it is all about the characters and their personalities, grievances and prejudices, so until you know who's who and who's related to who, it is all a bit confusing. A lot of the characters seemed quite samey to me at first; small-minded, middle-class and mistrustful of change. However, I soon realised that it was just Rowling's subtlety and that they only appeared similar on the surface; underneath everyone is hiding secrets, shame and something a little sordid. Which is true of real life. I found most of the characters interesting and believable, which is what had me gripped after my initial indifference. One moment I was trying to figure out which character was which, and the next I was utterly engrossed in their lives and motivations. 

Reviews that I have read for this book in newspapers tend to hold the opinion that Rowling is much better at portraying the younger characters than the old, but I actually found the mundane middle-aged boredom and discontent of the older characters to be more poignant. Some of the younger characters seemed too profound and introspective to be real. I am thinking particularly of one character, Stuart 'Fats' Wall, who I thought was the worst and most irritatingly unbelievable character. He just didn't seem teenage, rather he seemed like a teenager written by an adult. However, I have the exact same problem when I read John Green's books; people tend to love them and I just don't enjoy at all so I may also be in the minority regarding Fats. I did like Sukhvinder and Krystal however, who are also younger characters and seemed much more human. As Rowling has said to people who criticised her use of graphic language: it is ridiculous to write about teenagers without swear words and sex. She certainly doesn't hold back and I think she got it spot on.

At the heart of this novel is the tension between the middle-class and the working-class people in Britain. The residents of Pagford are divided about the 'Fields'; a council estate which has spilled into Pagford which means that, among other things, children from the council estate are able to attend Pagford's posh school. The snobs ain't happy and want the Fields to be ingratiated into the nearby town of Yarvil, whereas the more liberal residents, including the now dead Barry Fairbrother, wanted to embrace the Fields a bit more and help the residents who are struggling there (such as drug addicts). I live in Britain and see the struggle between the classes every single day, and reading this book made me wonder if it is something which is maybe hard to imagine if your country has a different dynamic. I love that Rowling chose class prejudice rather than race prejudice or religion-based prejudice which I think would've been the more obvious options that more people could have related too. Instead, the whole novel felt very British and outlined the underlying snobbishness and narrow-mindedness of the worryingly growing proportion of the kind of people who read (and believe) the Daily Mail. The middle-classes in Britain deserve to be ridiculed, which I can say as a middle-class British citizen. Don't get me wrong, the working classes get their fair share of criticism as well in this novel, but it is really the 'not on my doorstep' attitude of comfortably-off Britains towards the poor that hits the nail on the head and was uncomfortable to read at times.

The point of view shifts frequently throughout this novel, and we see the story through the eyes of many different characters. Their individual stories have varying degrees of interest, and range from bickering about who cooks dinner in one household to a daughter pleading with her mother not to inject heroin; further accentuating the differences in living conditions of two houses not more than a mile apart. I loved that there were so many personalities and perspectives in this novel, and I think that what is absolutely genius is how flawed each and every character is, yet you still empathise with them even when they are doing and sayin horrific things. Rowling just knows how to make characters who so multi-faceted and endearing, that even the most horrible ones manage to pull your heartstrings. One minute I despise them and want them to get their comeuppance, the next I am pitying them. I just feel so much when I read any of Rowling's books, and it really is just such a roller coaster of emotions. I love how Rowling always makes connections and likes to tie things up neatly, as in this novel it meant that there were lots of little relationships and connections between different characters, and events always had a domino effect upon the characters because of this; one is affected and they are ALL affected. 

This book is gritty and uncomfortable in parts, and it seems to have shocked a few reviewers. I actually wanted MORE grit and more...out of the ordinary. I didn't really FEEL the dirt and the grime, or the pain of the abused or the desperation of the addict. It all felt very arms length. It is the one thing that I am finding it hard to forgive Rowling for with this book; it lacks the heart that we all know she can do. It feels a little cold and removed and clinical; I wanted more passion. I wanted heart-wrenching or hilarious or wildly happy. This novel is none of those, it is slightly sad, slightly funny and slightly redemptive. It is not wondrous or even hugely enlightening about any issues; it is a great, solid character-based novel. I really, really liked it but for her next book I hope she REALLY lets rip and strips those restricting boundaries away and gives us a book that seriously packs a punch. We know she can.

Overall, this novel ended up sucking me in and forcing me to admire it despite lacking the intensity I really wanted. It sticks to its manicured lawns and neat flowerbeds and it works. For anyone still unsure about the plot let me just reiterate: this is a character-driven novel. Discard what you thought it might be about; what it is really about is the responsibility people have for each other, and the domino affect actions can have upon others, looked at through the microcosm of a small town in the English countryside. And bloody good it is too.

Other Thoughts

This Book has Inspired me to Read: More Adult Fiction. Since I started my blog YA has dominated, and I miss grown up, gritty stuff. Bring on the swears.

Memorable Quotes: 

'Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.'

'She was wearing the cheap scarlet kimono that he did not like, but that suited her so well.'

'Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him.'

'Shame ran down her body like a burning rash as she lay in the darkness.'

Three Words to Describe this Book: Neat, Poignant, Insightful.

But Don't Take My Word For It...

  • Blog Reviews of  'The Casual Vacancy': 
The Book Boy says:

'I have to say, that I really enjoyed it. JK Rowling is simply a master storyteller. The way she gets into the minds of her characters and brings them out onto the page is top-notch. However, I felt that this book could have done with a bit of editing at times'

 'She is such a fabulous writer, and this is the first time I can say I have been disappointed in something she wrote. But I think she could rebound from this, considering it was her first step into adult books'


  1. I'm in the first quarter of The Casual Vacancy right now!! I really like it as well...a classic in the making so far :)

    1. Nice blog on the Review of the book 'The Casual Vacancy.' I will share this review with our team of CV consults, who provide CV services London, also would fan of reading.

  2. Hmm.. I've been debating with myself on whether I should read this or not. Hearing the opinion of a fellow YA reader really shifted things. Great review!

    - Ellie @ The Selkie Reads Stories

  3. This is such a fantastic review, Anna! I agree that I like that she chose to go with class conflict versus some of the other prejudices that might have been more obvious. The class choice seems extremely British in my mind. I'm glad to see her wondrous characterization sticks, but am sad that it lacks heart. I honestly don't know that I'll ever read this one, it just doesn't interest me and I don't feel like reading a book just because it has her name on it, but I am happy to see satisfied readers.

  4. Honestly what's drawn me to J.K. Rowling's book is the characterization. Sure, the world-building for the Harry Potter series is super impressive. But in the end what I cared about most were the characters. So that makes me very glad to hear that The Casual Vacancy is all about characters as well. I'm sure that I'll enjoy that aspect of the book, even if the overall plot doesn't entice me as much. Great review! I have not yet started reading my personal copy of it yet, but I need to fix that ASAP.

  5. It took me a little while to get into this novel but ultimately I enjoyed it. Felt like i got to know the characters.

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