J. 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.