The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The Casual VacancyJ. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, ‘The Casual Vacancy’, opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairweather, a popular local parish councillor.  This event sends shockwaves through the small town of Pagford and the upcoming election sharply divides the community, particularly with regard to the future of a nearby council estate known as The Fields.

I admit I have had reservations about reading ‘The Casual Vacancy’ which was why I waited until I could get my hands on a free copy rather than buy it as soon as it was published just over a year ago.  However, after finally reading it for myself, I really do think the criticism that J. K. Rowling received for it has been too harsh.  Having scanned a few reviews on Goodreads, the main complaint amongst readers seems to be that none of the characters are easy to love.  This is certainly true but I don’t see why that necessarily means ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is a bad book.  It still takes skill for a writer to be able to create that sort of atmosphere so vividly.  Obviously, this unlikeableness is pretty far removed from the heroics of Gryffindor’s finest at Hogwarts.  The more “desirable” side of Pagford isn’t a million miles away from Little Whinging but anyone expecting Horcruxes and house elves to appear in ‘The Casual Vacancy’ probably shouldn’t read it.

Although difficult to pin down a genre as such, I would describe ‘The Casual Vacancy’ as a darkly comic state-of-the-nation novel. Rowling explores the gritty realities of poverty through the Weedon family alongside the farcical middle England values of characters like Howard and Samantha Mollison.  For the first hundred pages or so, the residents of Pagford mostly seemed to blur into one but the characters become more distinctive as the story progresses.  Rowling’s social observations in particular are very sharp and while the ending was bleak, it was not wholly surprising.  Some more careful editing might have helped make the plot a bit tighter but it was not as overlong as I had initially feared.

Overall, I think ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is a well-written and ambitious book which deserves to be read without pointless comparisons to a certain boy wizard whose name may or may not begin with H.  I am fairly sure that it would have received much more positive reviews had Rowling decided  to use a pseudonym (as she did later with ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ which I will be reviewing very soon) but I admire her decision to publish it under her own name.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

  1. I’m going to read this eventually, but like you, I’ve been waiting for a free copy to come around. I don’t find likeable characters to be that important to a story (USUALLY… I intensely despise Huck Finn because all of the characters were idiots and I didn’t like any of them),

    To be fair, I didn’t really have much respect for Rowling as a writer until she had started to write much further into the Harry Potter series and Harry (and the overall level of the writing) began to mature with the readers. I thought she was a good storyteller, but that the overall quality of the prose was lacking. After seeing her writing mature, I started to realize what she was capable of, and I’m curious to see what she’d do when writing for an adult audience.

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  2. mushypeasonearth

    I read this from the library about this time last year, I really enjoyed it. For much of it not an awful lot of note really happens (but it does build to a shocking and tragic end). I really liked the characterisation, I thought they were all really believable and didn’t slip too much into lazy stereotypes. the dialogue was natural and the narrative skips along very easily.

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  3. Jan

    I’ve been pretty nervous about reading this one as well because I’ve been such a fan of hers through Harry Potter. I’ve heard such mixed reviews about this one as well. I’ll probably give it a go at some point but I might wait for a free or cheaper copy too.

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  4. I’ve been recommended this when I asked around for books that would make you pass it onto someone else saying, “You must read this!” so thanks for the review. I will definitely get it now. Especially because I despair when people say they didn’t like a book because the characters weren’t likeable. Of course if a writer made it impossible to sympathise with characters that would be different, but if writers only made likeable heroes what a bland world it would be.

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  5. I’m probably the last person on earth who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. I have this on by TBR list though and all the reviews I read seem to praise it, so I’ll definitely give Rowling a try soon.

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  6. I read it a year ago, but what called my attention is Rowling’s talent to keep the narrative just flowing, always interesting and engaging. This is certainly also present in The Cuckoo’s Calling, and with it being a crime novel, you just get the best effect one could imagine.

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  7. sylviemarieheroux

    I like this book quite a bit. I did find some parallels with Harry Potter in the way some scenes are described, but of course, not in the situations Rowlings portrays. I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling but not as much. I will certainly look forward to future books if they focus on social issues in the same way.

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  8. Col

    I read it earlier this year with a bit of trepidation – I was concerned if wouldn’t live up to Harry. But it did for me. I thought it was great!

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  9. I really loved this book, and then I read Cuckoo’s Calling and loved it more. It saddens me that there was such a focus on it not being like HP — of course it isn’t! I really connected with the characters in CV, not because they were likable but because they were so real. I would much rather read a character that I can actually imagine interacting with than one that I think is likable or relatable. Being from a small town, I could identify many people I actually knew in her characters.

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  10. I feel rather sorry for JK Rowling (not very she has made millions from the wizard). She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. She writes one adult book under her own name and it gets panned; she then writes another under the name Robert Galbraith, then someone finds out it is JKR and all hell breaks loose. The feminists are annoyed because she chose a man’s name; the critics who reviewed it favourably are annoyed because they feel that they have been duped in some way and everyone else sneers or decides to wait to read the book. In truth, this is a writer who has developed, I have read all the Harry Potter books and was pretty sniffy about the first two which were seriously derivative, you could tell at a glance what JKR had read when she was young, but by the third in the series she had gained enough confidence to write with her own voice and that just got better and better. Her adventure into the world of the grown ups (those who have given her the benefit of the doubt and gone out to buy her new publications) has not been without its own travails, these are not great books. The first is a bit Barbara Pym-ish, with a less acerbic tongue and the ending is decidedly not Pym-ish and the Robert Galbraith seems to me to suffer from the fact that she is trying to sound like a male writer. Give the woman a break everyone, her voice may get stronger.

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  11. Jools

    I audiobooked this one – it’s beautifully narrated by the actor Tom Hollander and I’m sure I enjoyed it all the more because it was so fabulously read.

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  12. I LOVED The Casual Vacancy. I think most people’s complaint was that the characters aren’t easy to like but as you say, that doesn’t make it a bad book. She’s still an incredibly talented writer – that wasn’t an easy book to write! She still managed to suck you in completely and make the story compulsively readable.

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  13. I have been really interested in this novel, but hesitated to purchase it because I wasn’t sure how I was going to like it, or be able to finish it. I am going to have to check it out based on some of the reviews I have read on here from fellow readers. I did purchase “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by her alias, as this novel seemed to have gotten a better rating online than “Casual Vacancy.” Still excited to read both!

    Thank you so much for the review!

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  14. Like many others I avoided the Casual Vacancy – still not sure I’ll read it, unless a Library copy makes itself available. I did read Cuckoo’s Calling & really enjoyed it – & I’m, not a whodunnit fan – it was well-written and I’m looking forward to #2 in the series. I agree with the comment that says JKR is dammed if she does/doesn’t when it comes to pseudonyms – give the woman a break!

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  15. Pingback: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  16. For people to pan ‘unlikable’ characters seems pretty silly. Surely the point of literature is to explore all sides of the human character? I must admit, I do find it difficult if I don’t sympathise but that doesn’t ruin a book for me. We can’t have it all.

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  17. Pingback: The 2013 End of Year Book Survey | A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

  18. kirksroom

    I liked the book, too, and it is nice to hear a more positive review of the book, though I see why many people did not like it.

    I started reading the book when it came out in September, and I too created a review of it on my blog. Mine was much more thorough, including my comments and critiques of every chapter, with quotes included in the appropriate places.

    Perhaps you might like to check it out?

    http://kirksbooks.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/the-casual-vacancy-sunday/

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  19. I’ve just finished this book and wished that I had read it sooner. I loved it. Whilst you might not want to meet these characters in real life, in the pages of a book they absolutely leap off the page at you. I adored the way Rowling got all the personal stories to intertwine. I think it’s a dark comedy with a large dose of tragedy (or a tragedy with a large dose of comedy.)

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