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Casual Thoughts on ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling

Casual Thoughts on ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling post image

Happy Sunday, everyone! At the moment, I’m tapping out this post at a coffee shop near my parents’ house, after coming home for the weekend to do some volunteering. We’re heading out for a brunch/lunch in a couple hours, so I’m hoping to get some writing and shopping done this morning before stuffing my face at a breakfast buffet, yum.

I spent most of my reading time this week totally absorbed in The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. I’m calling this a post of “casual thoughts” rather than a review because I read too many reviews of the book before I read it to really have intelligent or articulate thoughts of my own. It feels more like my response to the book has been deeply impacted by both my love for Rowling’s Harry Potter series and all of the reviews I’ve read of the book so far.

The Casual Vacancy starts out dramatically, with the unexpected death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council (city council, essentially) of the town of Pagford. Fairbrother’s seat on the council opens up — hence the casual vacancy — and a battle breaks out between two factions on the council over who will fill the seat. The decision has big consequences for Pagford, which is currently in the midst of a debate about whether to disassociate the town with one section, “the Fields,” a poverty-stricken area much like the projects, and close a rehab clinic in the area. As the election and battle over the Fields heats up, anonymous posts start to appear on the council’s website from “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” that reveal the dark secrets of many residents of the town.

I’m one of the people, in the minority it feels like, who really enjoyed this book. Even if the author of the book wasn’t the author of one of my favorite book series of all time, I still think I would have made an effort to read it because the premise — what happens in a place after a dramatic event throws off a carefully calibrated equilibrium — appeals to me as a resident of a small town. Our politics aren’t as dramatic as those in Pagford, but there is something universal about the way problems grow quietly in the insulation of small town life that Rowling captures perfectly in both the premise, plot, and characters of A Casual Vacancy.

From what I have gathered, the characters have been the most controversial (in the sense of must loved or loathed) parts of this book. Many readers have mentioned how almost universally unlikable the characters seem to be, which I actually disagree with. Absolutely, many of them are unpleasant, but I also think the majority are deeply human and full of the kind of unpleasant features that most of us have and try to hide. And like in real life, it’s difficult to truly pick a villain or a hero. (This is not to say that a critique of likable/unlikable characters isn’t valid, just that I didn’t see the characters as so unpleasant that they took away from my enjoyment of the book.)

The characters are, I think, also where I felt like I was seeing J.K. Rowling’s style outside of Harry Potter. Many of the characters in Harry Potter (particularly the minor characters) are pretty over-the-top, almost caricatures of real people in the way that many of their physical and personality traits are described. I thought perhaps that style of characterization was simply a product of the type of book Rowling was writing, young adult fantasy, but after reading The Casual Vacancy, I think it’s clear that these sorts of extreme people are part of her style as a writer.

The characters in The Casual Vacancy reminded me a lot of the characters in Flannery O’Connor stories, particularly O’Connor’s use of the grotesque in her characters. They’re deliberately extreme in a way that inspire both empathy and disgust, or even have cringe-worthy traits that make them horrifying or sympathetic (thanks, Wikipedia, for the brief refresher). Rowling’s characters don’t have the same religious bent as O’Connor’s, but I got the same feeling of seeing characters who were very real despite their extreme features.

I wish I could include some more specifics — I’m afraid this post isn’t especially descriptive if you haven’t read the book — but I left my copy back at home and am writing mostly from memory. And, unfortunately, I’m also out of blogging time for this morning. I guess I’ll close by saying that despite seeing almost universally negative responses to this book, I really, really enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy and will probably be cautiously recommending it to friends that find some of these themes and styles appealing. Reading the book also made me feel more optimistic that I will be able to call myself a fan of J. K. Rowling rather than just a fan of Harry Potter.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jenny October 28, 2012, 2:53 pm

    I’m glad you liked it! I really, really wished that I would like it, and I thought I was going to. It was a letdown not to like it, when I love JK Rowling so much. The Flannery O’Connor comparison is…maybe my favorite thing anyone has said about this book so far, in that it’s the only thing that’s made me strongly consider revisiting the book someday, perhaps after mainlining some O’Connor stories. I love her and I can totally see what you mean about the similarities. Hm. Maybe if A Casual Vacancy had been short stories, I’d have found the characters less unbearable.

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:32 pm

      I’m a little leery of making the comparison, since I haven’t read O’Connor in a long time, but but the feel of the book and her stories were similar to me. I can see this working as short stories, maybe connected stories, another format I really like.

  • Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick October 28, 2012, 3:16 pm

    Yay! I read it and am one of the few who enjoyed it as well. Yes, I thought the characters were hideous, but could see the flaws that are so very representative of how people actually are. I thought it was a brilliant tale and am also cautiously recommending it to others, with the disclaimer that “you have to forget about the ‘other’ books written in order to give it a fair shake.” So happy to read you enjoyed it! Have a great day volunteering!

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:33 pm

      Yeah, it’s hard to read this book thinking about Harry Potter because they’re really different. I’m glad you enjoyed it too!

  • Jeanne October 28, 2012, 3:26 pm

    Hmm. At first I entirely rejected the Flannery O’Connor comparison, because hers are funny, at least in that darkly ironic way. And then I started wondering if I had lived at the time she was writing, if I’d have thought they were so funny. Maybe not.

    I do reject the comparison to small towns everywhere. I live in a small town and have come to know some of how it works. Despite the fact that there are some deeply dyfunctional things about my town (Creationism in the middle school), I don’t see the small-mindedness and pettiness of Pagford as realistic.

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:35 pm

      I don’t think it’s true of all small towns, and maybe not the same kinds of things that Rowling was writing about in Pagford. But the conflict between “us” and “them” — the people of Pagford and everyone who isn’t from there — felt familiar to me.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) October 28, 2012, 4:31 pm

    I finished this recently and you liked it more than I did. I haven’t written my thoughts yet but I think there were too many characters for me.

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:35 pm

      There were a lot of characters. It took me many pages to get a handle on all of them.

  • Jennygirl October 28, 2012, 8:09 pm

    I’ll eventually check this out to see how Rowling writes from a different perspective. I respect that she went out of the box for her first post-Potter book. Thanks for the honesty 🙂

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:36 pm

      I think it was a good choice, doing something super different. If she did more YA, it’d be too tempting to compare. At least this way you sort know intellectually not to compare it, even if it’s hard not to do that.

  • christa @ mental foodie October 28, 2012, 9:32 pm

    I am so behind in the book/blogging world that I didn’t even know this book is out (I did know she was going to write an adult novel). Well I haven’t even read all of the HP books… will put this on my list when the mood strikes!

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:36 pm

      I hope you’ll give it a try!

  • Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm October 29, 2012, 9:06 am

    Interesting! Yours is the first positive review that I’ve read. I dunno, I’m not sure that 1 good review can cancel 5 or 6 bad ones… but maybe I’ll give it a shot? 🙂

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:37 pm

      No, I’m not sure it can either. I wouldn’t universally recommend this one (and probably wouldn’t suggest buying it), but if you can get it from the library to least read a few chapters to see, I think it’s worth it.

  • Nikki Steele October 29, 2012, 12:18 pm

    I do have a confession to make–I’ve never read the Harry Potter series. (eek!) That being said, I think it might make me more of the ideal reader for The Casual Vacancy not having quite as many of the preconceived ideas about the book/author.

    I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed the book. With all the negative reviews I was starting to think that it may not be worth the time. I do respect your reviews though, so will keep this one on my TBR list. 😀

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:38 pm

      I think you’re right. Harry Potter brings a sort of baggage to the book that’s hard to ignore, even if you know this one isn’t supposed to be like that series. I can’t say that I think everyone will like this book — I can see the parts people didn’t like, I just didn’t mind them as much.

  • susan October 29, 2012, 9:03 pm

    Yeah it seems like people either really like it or hate it. Not sure I’ll read it for a while, but glad for your thoughts.

    • Kim October 30, 2012, 8:39 pm

      If you do give it a try, I hope you’ll enjoy it!

  • Athira November 7, 2012, 12:56 pm

    I started reading this book last week and so far I really like it. I can see J.K. Rowling’s signature writing style in this. Can’t wait to read the rest.

    • Kim November 11, 2012, 9:27 am

      I think one part of the book I really loved was seeing Rowling’s style as a writer come out in a way that’s different from the Harry Potter series. I could tell it was her writing, but in a new way.