Review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
(mildly spoilerish but no actual plot details)
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way before I start:
- This isn’t a Harry Potter book.
- The idea that Jo Rowling has any ongoing obligation to the children of the world when writing for adults is absolute bollocks.
- If the writing style or the content surprises or shocks you and you have actually read the Potter series then you clearly weren’t paying attention.
With that out of the way let’s get down to what I thought of the book itself.
It took me a little longer to get into in than I would normally have persisted with a novel and although I enjoyed the tone from the offset I found the lack of discernible plot in the first chunk slow going and would probably have given up on it had it not been the new JK novel etc. It’s worth pointing out that I’m a pretty impatient reader though and often give up on books after a half dozen pages, sometimes even less, if they haven’t grabbed me - however I still suspect it could have been edited a little more toughly in this opening section. Somewhere around the 200 page mark it suddenly clicked with me though and from that point on I found it pacey and highly enjoyable with the last quarter being un-put-downable.
Typically of Jo’s writing the highlights of the book for me are the plotting and the characterisation, particularly of the teenage characters and the odious Howard Mollison.
The writing style and characterisation was *exactly* what I expected it to be. Pagford is basically Little Whinging dragged into a more invasively adult scrutiny. Like her previous writing every character is flawed and many of them fairly unlikeable but in almost all cases we are encouraged to empathise with them too. We are given all sides of each nobly story to mull over in a way that real life rarely allows us to. A few reviews have criticised the writing for being stiff or two dimensional but I think that’s largely an illusion. Whilst she does occasionally have a tendency to slip into trite phrases or slightly overwrote metaphors there is this odd aspect to her writing, which I love and which is also present in the Potter series, where she gives you the feeling of something slightly pompous and old fashioned (Enid Blyton or Agatha Christie often come to mind) then punctures it repeatedly with moments of humour, horror or realism. I can understand how people could take it at face value but it has an unsettling push-me-pull-me quality that I adore - in much the same way (albeit not quite as twisted) as Twin Peaks where the cherry pie and strong jaws are just as integral as the madness and terror.
I’m not sure if this will make any sense but the plotting is the book’s key strength but not the plot itself. The way the various character’s lives weave together - finally crashing into each other in an operatic and somewhat melodramatically Hitchcock-esque final act (also reminiscent of the end of the third League of Gentlemen series) is fantastically enjoyable but the main story itself is not all that involving. I did enjoy the device of the pivotal character being dead (reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides or Twin Peaks again) and revealed to us only in drips and drops through the lives of the remaining characters and their own intricate stories, but the larger arc concerning Pagford and Yarvil and the council itself felt more like a vehicle for the message she wanted to deliver than a fleshed out story.
I was quite concerned in the opening chapters that the class war between Pagford and The Fields would become naive or cloyingly liberal and while at points in the early stages of the book it does feel a little like having a finger wagged at you I was relieved that as it progresses the moralising becomes much more evenly spread and complex. If there is an over-riding message to the book it is a borderline-nihilistic suggestion that we should all try to be more aware and kinder to each other but that life itself makes that almost impossible to achieve - that social conscience of any kind is an almost Herculean effort when combined with your own desires and needs. And that’s *very* Jo.
In summation - it’s not the best book I’ve ever read but it certainly wasn’t the worst either and although it’s not really like these author’s books I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys slightly gothic character based thrillers like Donna Tart, Patricia Highsmith and Louise Welsh . Or - and this really is the target demographic - Agatha Christie fans with a stomach for sex and swearing ;)