The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

This book has been a mixed-bag of reviews. Here’s mine:

I want to preface this by saying I haven’t read a Harry Potter book since the last one came out. So, I think it was much easier for me to distance myself from Rowling, the-author-of-Harry-Potter, and to think of her just as Rowling, author.

As I was reading this book, I kept having a recurrant thought which built on each reappearance. 503 pages later, here is the finished product: This is an ugly novel about ugly people with ugly lives.

Which, I think, is what she was trying to do all along. People mentioned that they didn’t like any of the characters, didn’t like the sex/drugs/affairs/rape/insert-morally-offensive-topic-here, and just generally found the whole thing to be overwrought, too long, too much, too this, too that.

I read some snippets of Renee’s review (The Quick Red Fox) and find myself inclined to agree with her. This book reminds me very much of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Steven Gilbert’s A Lovely, Indecent Departure. All three novels are a bit ugly, about ugly people and ugly lives. In order of likeability and degree of ugliest, Plainsong emerges top of the heap and The Casual Vacancy squarely at the bottom.

In an odd way, I think slice-of-life novels are among the most difficult to pull off. I should know. I’m writing one. For one thing, they don’t rely on a super-charged plot. It’s amazing how much readers will forgive if the plot is exciting/interesting. I’m extremely guilty of this. But in a slice-of-life, you have nothing to hide behind. There is only the strength of your own writing and your own characterization. No mystery, no magic, no thriller. Only words on a page and how you convince the reader to keep going.

I sat next to someone on the plane yesterday who asked me about the book. He didn’t even know the premise. I had a hard-time explaining it.( At that time, slice-of-life was evading me. ) It’s odd though. We don’t have a lot of ready-made words for these types of novels. Partly, I suspect, because slice-of-life novels often find themselves thrown underneath the umbrella of something else and partly because stories of this kind have greatly fallen out of fashion. I can certainly think of more “classic” slice-of-lifes than their modern counterparts.

I liked this book. I did. Do I see why people didn’t like it? Absolutely. In fact, this book probably would have been better hailed if it didn’t have Rowling’s name on it. I remember, once, I was reading an article in which someone postulated that Rowling might take a penname for all future works. At the time, I didn’t see that it mattered. Now, I do.

I do like that this novel was so ugly in so many ways. People and real-life are often quite ugly. That’s why some of the best novels about crime are the non-fiction ones. Because truth is often stranger than fiction.


11 Comments on “The Casual Vacancy

  1. Hey thanks for the mention! And it looks like we really do agree on the novel. I liked it a lot, but I can definitely see why others didn’t. And I forgot to mention in my own review, but I also disliked Rowling’s POV changes between third-person ominiscient and third-person limited. Sometimes it felt clunky or I wouldn’t realize right away that the POV had switched. But all in all, I really did like the book. Great review!

  2. I pretty much agree with you about this book. I think it is a very good book that accomplishes what Rowling wanted it to, and it probably would have received more praise if it hadn’t been published under J.K. Rowling’s name. However, although I think The Casual Vacancy was well done, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I appreciated what Rowling did with it, but it wasn’t really the type of book I tend to love reading.

    • That’s true. All of the books that I mentioned it was similar to, aren’t necessarily ones I would have picked up on my own. I really loved them all, but if it’d been me by myself in a bookstore with no prior knowledge of the book, I probably would have passed them by.

  3. I think I want to read the book now. The ugliness you talked about is kind of enticing… I will let you know how I like it once I read it!

  4. I definitely see what you’re saying with your review – a very ugly read but somehow at the same time very accessible. Despite the fact that I didn’t actually like any of the characters I found that I really enjoyed the experience of reading them, and I think that’s all down to the sheer talent and genius of Rowling as an author. I also agree that this is exactly what she was trying to achieve – she’s carving a place for herself as a writer outside of the world of Harry Potter, and I really respect her for wanting to build a career under her own name that goes beyond HP and reach readers beyond the HP audience. Great review – here’s mine if you’re interested in reading it:

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