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A Book Review: "The Casual Vacancy"
"The Casual Vacancy" Review
This article was written by ToKnowInfo's daughter, OneToKnow
I am a child of the Harry Potter phenomena. As a fifth grader and an avid reader, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series appealed to my own avid imagination. As the series continued and years stretched between books,
I was apart of, what felt like, an exclusive group of people that grew up with Harry. We loved, we lost, we experienced teen angst and we had adventures that created memories that will last a lifetime. Some of my own adventures, though not as exciting as Harry's involve being first in line at midnight to buy the sixth Harry Potter book, theorizing with friends using minute details and clues to gauge anything about the upcoming book and going to a double feature for the two part seventh film.
Reading Harry Potter did not just satisfy my appetite for all things fantasy, as I got older it ignited and inspired a creativity in me that I have carried through college. I discovered writing and it's infinite possibilities and even ended up majoring in Creative Writing.
I'm not trying to be the next J.K. Rowling, I can only hope for luck like that to strike me in my career adventures. J.K. Rowling is something special to the literary community and rather one of a kind for her time. Harry Potter's story closed for good four years ago. The chapters have been read again and again but the story is definitely complete. Voldemort was defeated, Harry moved on and his fans grew up.
J.K. Rowling Writes Another Book
So when it was announced that J.K. Rowling was writing a new book, excitement rippled through the "Potterverse." The fact that this new novel had nothing to do with Harry Potter and was classified as adult fiction did not matter. All that mattered was that J.K. Rowling was writing another book. The expectations were high and the stakes were even higher. Could she write adult fiction? And could she write outside of the fantasy genre?
I never really understood why Harry Potter was considered children's literature, it seemed cruel and unusual to take us readers in, break down our guard, make us fall in love with a character and then rip them from us with almost as much reality as a real loss (I still cry when Dobby dies and I'm still completely in denial about Fred, I change his name to Percy when I get to that part) but after reading J.K. Rowling's new book I now understand what the difference between children's literature and adult fiction and categorizing a novel in either classification creates it's own stigma.
Children's literature is not all whimsy and fantasy and adult fiction is not all sex and reality. There is a happy mixture but I don't think one classification benefits from more fantasy or the inclusion of sex. My point is there is a stark difference between the J.K. Rowling who writes children's literature and the J.K. Rowling who writes adult fiction. I may be a bit biased but I think I prefer the former J.K.Rowling.
The Casual Vacancy came out on Tuesday September 27th 2012 at eight o'clock in the morning. I have no idea if there was a line outside the bookstore because unlike having to tote around a five hundred page tome I downloaded the book onto my iPad and had to wait until a break in my classes to be able to begin reading. By the end of that day I was a mere forty pages in and undecided on the overall plot.
I was trying to give the novel it's best shot I could. Yes, I had already started comparing it to Harry Potter (the first utterance of a curse word in The Casual Vacancy actually shocked me) but I thought perhaps this story was something I needed warming up to, the characters couldn't be all bad and there had to be a big mystery that would suck me in and tie everything together neatly at the end.
Unfortunately, my initial instinct went rather unchanged. The first time I had to accept that this was not the J.K. Rowling I knew and loved was when I found it easy to put the book down in pursuit of other more fun activities like my TV shows. The next was when I returned to social media after a short break in the hopes of not spoiling the book for myself. I realized no one was talking about it like that and I was missing out on talking about everything else with my friends. And the most obvious moment was when I finally finished the book. I felt nothing. No, I felt lost and nostalgic for the world of Hogwarts.
The Casual Vacancy took place in our reality in a small town named Pagford. This little country town was at war with itself and when a prominent member of the community dies and "a casual vacancy" occurs for the council seat the underhanded, dirty secrets of various members of little Pagford come to light, which sets everything in the final pages into motion. I don't know if I would have read it if it wasn't by J.K. Rowling.
The plot was kept mostly secret and for any other author I do not think I would have taken the chance. The Casual Vacancy is definitely more real, more down to earth but I didn't find it nearly as funny as Harry Potter and I missed the whimsical absurdity. I think the fantastical universe of Harry Potter was one of the many aspects that made it so engaging.
The Casual Vacancy was very English, which was intriguing. I found myself looking up several words, this aspect is possibly the only positive attributes to the novel. I enjoyed getting a real feel for how the English speak and as a writer I appreciate being able to expand my musings and make my own work seem more authentic.
However, when delving into the nitty gritty of the novel The Casual Vacancy lacked solid characters, I liked the shifting points of view but there were a lot of characters to keep track of, none of which stood out to me too much or were extremely likable. I couldn't picture most of them, despite the distinct defining ways of speaking and physical descriptions. Throughout the novel I felt mostly indifferent, granted I didn't expect the ending but riding the climax of the novel was a bit of a let down.
I feel like the novel lacked a true point, perhaps it's over my head entirely but there was no underlying theme of love or good versus evil. Maybe it was trying to make some kind if commentary on the way people live and the dynamics of that but it wasn't clear. I think the novel attempted to show real life is hard for people of all ages but that's not a real plot and in any case a weak point.
And I don't feel like I gained anything by entering these people's lives for a short time, it wasn't fun it was annoying. I didn't really learn anything or take away any real wisdom or memorable quotes. I did take away that Pagford is a boring little country town that looks serene and pleasant but houses many secrets and ridiculous gossip. I also ended up with Rihanna's "Umbrella" stuck in my head for a day, shockingly this is a defining character point but to me the song is old and tired, quite like the town of Pagford and the people in it actually.
About the Book
All in all I think J.K. Rowling was trying too hard to distance herself from Harry Potter and it didn't really work. The crude language and the sex certainly achieved that but it was far removed from Harry. No characters resembled even minor Harry Potter characters, which I understand was purposeful but it would have been nice to see a little selflessness, a little unconditional love. Perhaps then this transition, for me, would have been easier if there was some sort of familiarity.
The Casual Vacancy just did not feel deep. There was no happy ending and I know Americans, typically cannot handle unhappy endings but this is not why I disliked the The Casual Vacancy.
The ending of the novel was just abrupt and I did not really care that it was over and Pagford was a mess. I don't even understand why it mattered that Barry Fairbrother, who is the main topic of most of the book and is the reason for the casual vacancy, died at all. Pagford is dull and I have no urge to return whereas even the sleepy houses on Privet Drive call to me! Maybe I'm missing something but overall I was completely underwhelmed.
I do respect the fact that this is J.K. Rowling's first attempt away from Harry Potter, and take that into account, so if she wrote another adult novel I'd be willing to give it a try. I will always be biased but it is more than that, she was not writing to her potential here and I think that's what disappointed me.
Summary of "Casual Vacancy"
In summary The Casual Vacancy was flat and nothing really changed, no real differences were made, life just went on and I don't need to read that to understand my own life. I'm well aware of the daily affairs of my college, hometown and country, it is what is but it certainly doesn't interest me to read about it in a tiny little town that I have no investment in. Pagford took no real shape for me. It felt like a blob or somewhere in limbo, it didn't even sound like hell or hit close to home.
Honestly, excuse the pun, there was no magic in The Casual Vacancy. I want to feel something when I read and in this case all I wanted to do was finish the book so I could say I gave it a shot. And I did give it a shot. And it failed to live up to my expectations. I'm not even disappointed, I'm sad. I wanted to leave the book satisfied I read it with something to talk about but it's not really that kind of book. It's not even the type of novel I can go back and look for clues for the ending.
It was restless and listless and romance less all at once. I'll give it a pass until J.K. Rowling comes out with another novel and that will be the true marker of her capability as an adult fiction author.