Monday, September 7, 2015

'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 36 - A Book that Scares you.

I didn't know what to choose for this category, as I didn't want to delve into horror or tragedy. It's not worth getting myself totally miserable just for the sake of this challenge. When I saw this book's spine on my library shelves, I knew it would fit the bill. Since it was first published, I've heard people call it deplorable, horrible and dark with no redeeming feature. That's what scared me off reading it in 2012. I even included it on my list of books I was hesitant to read. Having finished it now, I'm glad I read it, although I can see both sides of loving and hating it. 


When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?


Middle-aged Barry Fairbrother, school teacher, town councillor and pillar of his small community, dies suddenly from a burst aneurysm. Everyone presents a sorrowful face, although secret, heartfelt reactions range from devastation to relief and pleasure. He has left a gaping hole in council to fill (the casual vacancy) and some townsfolk are anxious to put their own names forward. The story is all about the chain of events which is set off when they do. 

There are not really any main characters to single out, but rather several. We are introduced to them thick and fast in the first fifty pages or so, and I started writing a list to keep track of them. Before too long, I didn't need the list anymore, as each of these Pagford identities had become very familiar to me.

One thing I found hard to get used to is the omniscient, third person narration, which hops from head to head, and place to place within the one scene (if you can really call it a 'scene' since it hops from place to place). I don't come across much modern writing done like that anymore. 

Swearing and coarse language is applied with a shovel. It raises the question is all this necessary? JKR has always evoked character and emotion very well in the HP books without resorting to foul language. A prime example is Uncle Vernon Dursley's fury expressed toward Harry on numerous occasions. I'm sure she could have done the same with the small town folk of Pagford, even though others may argue that it would compromise the integrity of the novel. The character Sukhvindah Jawanda reflects that her fellow school student, Krystal Weedon uses the f-bomb interchangeably with 'very' and seemed to see no difference between them. Should a novel which aims to present the stark reality of characters such as the Weedons hold back in any way without selling the characters short? Perhaps any reader who dares face up to the harsh, in-your-face themes of the book needs to accept the language as part of the whole.

As for the themes themselves, anyone wanting to write an essay would have plenty to choose from. Some reviewers have commented that it needn't be such a thick book, considering that it's just about sad, sordid people living their normal lives. But beneath the surface, there's domestic violence, rape, cyber-bullying, infidelity, OCD, slashing/cutting, complications from adoption, drug addiction, gluttony, and overall, the secret nastiness and hypocrisy in many human hearts. Teenage characters are shown up as secretive, deep and cynical people who have grown old enough to see through good-looking masks and pretensions which adults put up, so watch out anyone with teenagers in your life! However, even though the teens are judgmental, they're certainly not portrayed as any nicer than the adults.

The novel dwells on the darkness in human hearts. The people who appear the most squeaky clean may be concealing the most unsavoury thoughts and motivations. I was sad at first that out of so many characters, nobody stood out as good and admirable. Everyone was small, petty, cruel and mean in their own way, which I thought a waste, since JKR can clearly invent magnificent heroes. But then I started liking a couple of them. Maybe that's what books like this are all about. In order to like others, including ourselves, we could train ourselves out of expecting perfection.

So overall, no, it didn't have the same magic as Harry Potter. (I couldn't resist throwing that one in.) It wasn't my favourite book of the year. It leaves a bit of a nasty aftertaste. I doubt I'll ever want to think about it or return to it again. However, I was hooked enough to read it fairly quickly, and I definitely don't think it deserves a ranking of one star. I can't help wondering if several of those were from disappointed readers who expected a story that would wow them the same way as Harry and his friends. If the author had been anyone different, they might have ranked it higher too. I wonder if she was sorry not to have chosen a pseudonym for this. It might have gone over better all round from the pen of Robert Galbraith.

3.5 stars     


  1. Ha Ha! Loved the pun about Harry Potter. 'It didn't have the same magic as Harry Potter.'

    It's hard to depart from what you have grown to expect from an author. The book is still sitting on my shelf—unread. Now i may just have to pick it up!

    Great review, Paula.

    1. Yes, I can certainly why readers were so polarised when this book came out. She can cover a wide range, that's for sure.

  2. I've put off reading this one too though I have read her two Robert Galbraith novels - I enjoyed The Cuckoo's Calling particularly. The nature of the crime in The Silkworm was particularly unsavoury and both books tended to explore the darker side of human nature though Comoran Strike and his assistant Robyn are flawed but likable people.

    I will say that I was a little bit taken aback at 'adoption' being popped in a list of the overall ‘secret nastiness and hypocrisy in many human hearts'. Granted that adoption does raise significant issues and angst, especially as it was practiced some 40 to 50 years ago (sometimes forced, often in secrecy and with little acknowledgement of the need to know about and/or connect with the birth family). Even in the best of circumstances there is a wound – not so much of being adopted but of being relinquished - but as an adoptive parent and knowing the deep love and commitment of adoptive parents and children, it can also be a beautiful thing out of the ashes of difficult circumstances. I also honour the women who don't choose to abort their babies but rather give them a chance of a full and happy life. I wouldn't put adoption on par with 'domestic violence, rape, cyber-bullying, infidelity, OCD, slashing/cutting, ... drug addiction, gluttony'. Which I'm sure was unintentional on your part, Paula. I tossed up whether to say something but I think in today’s society, many do see it as an unmitigated evil and question the reality of the bond in adoptive families (adoptive parents aren’t ‘real’ parents). I find that sad.

    Anyhow, sorry to go about that. Thanks for your thoughtful and enlightening review, Paula. It confirms much what I though this book might be like. I may get around to reading it one day, but am in no particular hurry :)

    1. Oh no, all I meant was that adoption was one of the prolific themes in the novel. But now I see that appearing on the list with all the other themes which were less than positive, how it must have looked. That was totally unintentional, and I apologise, Jenny. In fact, the adoption thread was one of the few positive ones in the novel, especially from the POV of the character's parents. I didn't mean to give it the same tinge of negativity at all, and might make that clear. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.