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The Casual Vacancy Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel Carriere

Updated on April 18, 2020
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Book Blogger Mel Carriere is Machiavellian in his quest for good reads. He will take candy from a baby, he will steal a book from his kids.

I found The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there, like orphaned Harry Potter exiled to the muggle Dursleys
I found The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there, like orphaned Harry Potter exiled to the muggle Dursleys | Source

Dusting Off Old Clichés, Favorite Writers

Has it really been that long? Seems like yesterday - to dust off the old cliché, but it had to have been the year 1999 or 2000. Then, we were right on the cusp of the new millennium, shadow boxing with the daunting Y2K, a phantom villain that failed to materialize, now laughable in the face of society's very real coronavirus meltdown.

My oldest son must have been in either second or third grade when he brought home a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, probably purchased from a classroom Scholastic book order. Up until then I had seen Harry Potter festooned on posters and cardboard displays in every bookstore I walked into, particularly the now defunct Borders I frequented. At first, I laughed off the boy wizard as a pulp fiction trend for kids, somewhere along the lines of the Goosebumps book I read the boy one evening, but wouldn't do again because it kept him up at night, seeing phantoms in every corner of the darkened room. I scoffed at the Harry Potter fad as something similar, in the category of Harlequin romances or dime novel westerns.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see what the craze was all about, so I picked up my son's book and started reading, not expecting to last long.

I think I was hooked by the end of page one, or maybe paragraph one. I didn't give the book back to the lad until approximately 300 pages later, when I was finished. I have to do my parental duty and make sure there's nothing indecent in here for you, I probably told him, or some nonsense like that.

From then on, it was a running battle to get to the Harry Potter books before my kids could. I ordered in advance and patiently counted down the days until the next installment. I even wound up buying two copies of The Order of the Phoenix when my child left the first one at Grandma's house. I was completely enthralled by the saga - the complexity of the fantastic backdrop, the mystery surrounding the resurgence of the evil Voldemort, but particularly the depth of the series' characters. The exquisitely skilled storyteller, JK Rowling, was an expert at arousing feelings for her cast of wizards, witches, and muggles, both good and bad, particularly for the downtrodden orphaned waif of her title character, who rises from a lowly cupboard beneath the stairs to become the hero of the wizarding world.

The years since have whizzed by like a Quidditch Seeker racing after the golden snitch. The Harry Potter epic ended a decade and a half ago, but remains relevant to our culture through the endless television rotation of movies it spawned, the theme park attractions built to capitalize on its astounding popularity, and the recent Fantastic Beasts cinematic serial. The boy wizard retains a tenacious hold upon the minds and hearts of fans he thrilled at the turn of the millennium.

Therefore, when I spotted Rowling's The Casual Vacancy at my local Goodwill, sitting abandoned and forgotten there like young Harry exiled to the muggle Dursleys, I knew I had to rescue it. A great writer is a great writer, right? - no matter what genre he or she ventures into. Such was my thinking when I picked this book up, and I wasn't disappointed.

Around the turn of the millennium, you couldn't go anywhere without bumping into the boy wizard.
Around the turn of the millennium, you couldn't go anywhere without bumping into the boy wizard. | Source

Lunchtime Lit Rules

Although in most jurisdictions theft from minors is either illegal or highly frowned upon, in our little district of Lunchtime Lit Land the practice is not only sanctioned by higher authority, it is actively encouraged. Therefore, stealing away your childrens' Scholastic book order to enjoy on your 30 minute postal lunch break is perfectly fine, as not as it is not brought home for nighttime reads. That would most definitely be cheating, and we don't endorse such immorality here.

Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **

Word Count
Date Started
Date Finished
Lunchtimes Consumed
Power in the Blood
A Suitable Boy
Death Is a Lonely Business
The Casual Vacancy

**Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word count website, I rely on that total.

*Twenty-five other titles, with a total estimated word count of 5,349,725 and 815 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.

Vacating The Goodwill Bookshelf

This recent Goodwill encounter wasn't the first time I had seen The Casual Vacancy. Upon its publication in 2012, I was immediately aware of its existence. Rowling's insane fame gave her head of the line privileges in local bookstores, where the hardback was prominently displayed upon its release, albeit fleetingly. It was everywhere for a minute, and I had picked it up once before putting it down again, daunted by the price, a price I would have happily dished out twice over for any of the Harry Potter books. But why not give it a whirl? - I thought that second time, for the couple bucks it will cost me here in the thrift shop.

The truth is, I don't think this post-Potter publication was marketed correctly. The dust jacket billed it as a political tale, a struggle for a vacated council seat in some lackluster English muggle town. The idea didn't seem all that appealing to me, so I left the book where I found it, until seven years later there in that Goodwill shop, where I was willing to take a gamble on a cheap, used copy.

I soon found out that yes, Vacancy is a political tale, but it is much more than that. The story turns out to be a penetrating expose of a superficially pleasant, peaceful English burg, whose pretty exterior is peeled back to expose the stinking viscera of the place. The staid, respectable councilmen of Pagford all have rotten skeletons in their closets. Even their children are dysfunctional, as well as the town's youth at large, both the offspring of the reputable inhabitants, and those outcasts at its rejected margins. Everybody in Pagford deals with personal Dementors, but real ones relevant to all our lives, not the fantastical contrivances of an author's imagination, lording over some fictional Azkaban dungeon.

All the people who appear in The Casual Vacancy have chronic character flaws. The only really good man in Pagford, Barry Fairbrother, dies on page 5. He was the glue that held the town together, the one who supported the flimsy house of cards. His unexpected offing not only leaves a vacancy on the city council, it rips the place apart at the seams, exposing the dirty, festering cancer at the heart of the burg.

Character development was one cornerstone of Harry Potter's success, and Ms. Rowling demonstrates she is still superb at it here. There is nothing cardboard or stereotyped about the citizens of Pagford. Much like real people in real life, they are all a balance of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, phony vs. authentic. The least likely of them eventually reclaims the moral high ground abandoned when Fairbrother died, but she too has a dark, secret side.

The fictional town of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy may be inspired by Yate, Gloucestershire, the West Country town that was Ms. Rowling's birthplace.
The fictional town of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy may be inspired by Yate, Gloucestershire, the West Country town that was Ms. Rowling's birthplace. | Source

Darkness Among These Muggles

There is a darkness among these muggles in The Casual Vacancy that the wizarding world can't copy. The villains in Pagford don't need a wand and a cruciatus curse to bring down their enemies. Just a little knowledge of sql injection website hacking and the willingness to use it, is enough to bare the ugly truth about foes and family members alike, unleashing a small town s**tstorm.

Warning - Just because this novel is written by your grade school kid's favorite author, probably the only author most of them have read, don't be thinking it is going to be PTA approved. So if you intend to seek this out for your reading pleasure, don't waste your time looking in the local elementary school library.

It is almost as if Ms. Rowling wrote the tale as a reaction to being mother-approved for so many years, a kind of big eff-you and the broomstick you rode in on. Among other indecencies, Vacancy contains both snogging and sagging between minors. There are cougar mommas lusting after teenage boys. There are all kinds of bad word bludgers being beaten about, oaths and imprecations that Professor McGonagall would definitely give you detention for at Hogwarts.

I, for one, admire Rowling's pluck, her willingness to step outside her safe, luxurious, lucrative genre box, and go to places where she would risk being lambasted by outraged parents who now have to cover their kiddies' virgin eyes and ears, lest they be exposed to the ugly reality in which we live. She could have gotten away with writing about dragons and horcruxes into infinity, but she chose to venture into forbidden territory, to put her immense talents to work on a very human story.

So go ahead and have your witch hunt, if you like, but I think I'll sit this one out. I thoroughly enjoyed The Casual Vacancy and I thoroughly enjoy its author, the lovely and talented JK Rowling, whether she's writing about the magical or the mundane. But then again, I like brainy girls. I'm not at all intimidated by them, I think I have a Freudian urge to be dominated by them.

JK Rowling reading from Harry Potter at the White House easter egg roll.  I dig brainy girls.  I think she's a hella hottie.
JK Rowling reading from Harry Potter at the White House easter egg roll. I dig brainy girls. I think she's a hella hottie. | Source

"There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children's babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I'm a writer, and I will write what I want to write."

— JK Rowling - The New Yorker

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