A Review of The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
I’m sad to say that my first contribution to this blog is a negative one. It pains me to write this review because J. K. Rowling, through her creation of the Harry Potter universe, was a huge part of my childhood. For most of my teenage years, Rowling was somewhat of a literary god to me; sure, the writing wasn’t great, but she created a fantastical world and made me enjoy reading – really enjoy it – for the first time. So it’s somewhat difficult for me to admit now that the author I spent my youth worshipping really isn’t so perfect after all.
I purchased The Casual Vacancy despite all the negative reviews I had heard and read about, but the thrill of holding a brand new, never-before-read J. K. Rowling book for the first time in five years was the last positive emotion I felt before reality came crashing down. Not even 30 pages in, I knew this was going to be a struggle. Every page turned already felt like an accomplishment, one closer to the end. I found myself reading faster and faster not out of enjoyment, but because the quicker I read, the sooner I would be finished.
The structure of the book itself is fine. Vacancy introduces a wide array of characters from different backgrounds with different personalities, and each chapter begins with a different point of view than the one before. The problem here, though, is that none of these characters are remotely likeable. Kay, the social worker, is unrealistic, Krystal (angsty teenager #1) is annoying, all of the Mollisons are, frankly, despicable, and even Andrew’s teenage angst overshadows the fact that he is verbally (and occasionally physically) abused by his father. I felt complete apathy throughout the entire book, spare only for my disgust with Andrew’s father, Simon, and a very Umbridge-esque exasperation with Shirley Mollison.
The change in point of view at the start of every chapter is refreshing, because when the POV shifts you are likely already fed up with the character you were just reading. The shifts that take place in the middle of a chapter, however, are not. Rowling’s tendency to switch viewpoints mid-conversation without reason or warning is disorienting and not at all welcome. These shifts usually occur between characters in the same room experiencing the same event, and a chapter rarely ends with the same perspective in which it began.
Rowling has stated publicly that writing a book for adults was something she had to do, and felt was a long time coming. That’s got to be a tough shift to make, and I applaud her for trying. It seems to me, though, that her writing style is much more suited for children’s literature than it is for adult fiction. Not to mention that reading a sex scene written by your childhood literary idol is a bit like walking in your parents ‘doing it.’ I heard glass breaking, the pedestal fell and my only thought was, “ew.”
Two positive notes about Vacancy: first, the politics were surprisingly well researched. I could easily see the divide between the Fields and the town of Pagford being a real issue, and the characters involved acted as I would expect small-town, local politicians to act. Second, the book does address real social issues. Though occasionally her characters’ handling of these situations can be unrealistic (read: The social worker completely ignoring the fact that a three-year old is blatantly neglected and forced to wear his own dirty diaper for days on end), you will be forced to think about how it is truly the mundane that makes us human.
Verdict: It’s a ‘no’ from me. But then again, I bought it knowing that there were bad reviews and completely ignoring them all. If you’re a Potter fan, you will feel the need to buy this book, and I can’t stop you. Just be prepared: you’ll never see her the same way again.