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Book Review: Casual Vacancy

I’ve read as much as I can deal with of:

Rowling, J. K. 2012. The casual vacancy. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

I read pages 1-72 and 411-end. This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a book I hadn’t read completely, but thought some of my 30 or so regular readers might benefit. If you’d like to read reviews from people who did finish the book, check out the Goodreads page for Casual Vacancy.

My take, from skipping the middle? I find it to be well written for what it is. It’s not my cup of tea but could be yours.

Unlike several innocents I saw at Goodreads, I knew several things going into this book:

  • This was Rowling’s first book for adults.
  • It had a lot of swearing and sex.
  • It asserted that the quaint English countryside covered a sea of conflict.
  • Casual Vacancy referred to an unscheduled opening in the local city council.

This did not prepare me for a whole town of people whose sole delight appeared to be in cutting one another down. Not that this really made them happy, but not seizing a chance to make someone miserable increased their own misery.

I think I’d met up to a dozen characters, maybe more before I closed the book at page 72. I had not met even one remotely sympathetic character – only the vile, more vile and cowardly. That’s when I started looking up reviews. I wanted some hope that eventually at least one of these characters would grow into a full human being. The reviews told me not to hold my breath. I told a friend and fellow book group member about this. She told me that she was pretending that Pagford was Lord Voldemort’s home town. If that were true, I can certainly see how Tom Riddle picked up his lifetime loathing of muggles.

The other thing I got from the reviews is that what plot there was (as opposed to developing the characters as backbiting savages) started around 300. I couldn’t make myself start that early, so I started on page 412, the second chapter of the last part.

There was indeed a plot, including three major incidents that did seem to bring about changes in some characters. One couple’s marriage gets better. One teenager steps back from suicide and begins to value others. But other people get even more mean and backbiting.

One of the reasons I assert Casual Vacancy is well written is for a scene where a teenager does something that is deeply scandal provoking, but when explained from the teenager’s point of view is necessary to protect a loved one.

In some reviews, Rowling gets hit for ending the book abruptly. I don’t think that’s really fair. While the book does end at a funeral, it does finish the event. At its heart Casual Vacancy is a character story – the bit about the Council and the drug treatment center is just a sideshow. Once Rowling showed how the many characters in the book changed, intensified, or stubbornly resisted change, the work is done and no more pages are needed.

Overall the effect of this book reminded me of the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington. The movie is about the truly harrowing first day of a new LAPD narcotics officer. Pretty much all of the rookie’s woes are inflicted by his deeply corrupt partner. It was well written. It was well-directed. The plot made sense for what it was. And I never want to see it again. Admittedly I did watch the whole movie, but if it were a book I probably would have dropped it at page  72 and not read more.

So, if you think humanity is scum and want a book that validates your beliefs in a well written way, Casual Vacancy is for you. People wishing realistic depictions of domestic violence or drug abuse may also find this work of value. If you enjoy uplifting books or want adventure, stay away.

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