The Casual Vacancy

J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy covers important themes, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

I had no intention of reading this book until I read Keren’s thought-provoking review.  I respect Keren’s opinion and often read books she recommends, so I thought I’d give Rowling’s first adult fiction book a go.  As I read, I returned to the review at several points when I would otherwise have put the book down without finishing it.  I didn’t really get into the story at all until somewhere around page 350 (I know!  For real!) and while I agree with Keren that several of the themes of the book are important, ultimately I didn’t like the book and probably wouldn’t recommend it.  Here’s a breakdown:

First, the good part: The Casual Vacancy addresses the important theme of how middle class people, both conservative and liberal, fail in their approach to the poor and underprivileged.

The book does a good, if bleak, job of illustrating how comfortably well off people usually fall completely short in their approaches to people from poor and desperate backgrounds.  At first I found myself repulsed by the conservative characters, who advocate cutting off funding for desperate tenement areas and make flippant remarks about how people on government benefits should just get a job or have their kids taken away.  I personally can’t stand that kind of smug attitude, and don’t have much respect for people who advance it (I find it especially disheartening and disappointing when it comes from Christians).

However, I was surprised by how well Rowling also depicted more liberal characters, as many of them are confronted with the fact that their concern for people at risk and children in crisis is marked by distance and self-preoccupation rather than by true compassion and willingness to get their hands dirty to truly offer hope.  How many of us talk a big game about justice and “caring for the least of these” but don’t really do it?  As one character asks in the book, how many of us are actually willing to take in the developmentally delayed three year old whose mother is a heroin addict who finances her habit in unsavory ways which the child has witnessed?  Are we actually anywhere near people with that level of problems, much less taking an active role in their lives and showing them love and hope?  Probably not.

I also liked how the title worked on so many levels of the story.

The untimely death of a town councillor causes a “casual vacancy” (this is the term for it in British local government, apparently) on the council but in reality the vacancy is anything but casual.  The dead man was one of the main advocates for a tenement area that the otherwise prosperous middle class town was partially responsible for, and his death caused a critical lost vote that made the lives and families of hundreds of people hang in the balance.  The title also applies well to the book’s threads of abandonment, isolation, loss, and spiteful treatment of others.  Finally, at the end of the book, many of the smug and unfeeling townspeople seem to regard the loss of two more members of the community as only a casual vacancy, rather than seeing the loss of the deceased as partially their own fault.

Although I thought the characters illustrated the main theme well, there were too many of them and they were unlikeable.

There were at least seventeen points of view in the book (maybe more, I kind of lost track) and even more characters who never got a POV chapter.  For all that, nearly unbelievably, none of them was the least bit likeable, except for one teen character who redeemed herself at the end in a too-little-too-late sort of way.  In a book that is over 400 pages long, I feel like a tiny shred of likeability in at least a couple of members of such a large cast would help.  While the characters were realistic, the unrelentingly grinding ugliness of their characters got old.  I had to read the book in snippets because I dreaded interacting with the characters.

But the characters did offer food for thought – I’d say another theme of the book is how people are disappointed in relationships.  I think Rowling did a good job of capturing how familiarity often breeds contempt, and that curious way that teenagers can’t stand hypocrisy while at the same time being hypocritical and judgmental themselves.  I found myself thinking a lot about how teens view their parents, and how maybe the only antidote is to develop a family culture of honesty and apology.

Language and Content Issues

I found I had the opposite take on language and content issues than Keren had in her review – I didn’t have a problem with the coarse language (especially since so much of the swearing was British so lots of the words don’t carry much freight for me) and could understand how the language helped to define characters and fit in with their backgrounds, but I had a hard time with the sexual content of the book.  It wasn’t so much the episodes (which were not too lascivious in most cases) but rather then inclusion of so many small but tawdry references to sexual things that wore me down.  I didn’t feel like those were necessary or at all illuminating in terms of characterization.  Had I not read Keren’s review, I would have put the book down after two chapters only for the needlessly vulgar casual references to and descriptions of sexual topics.

So, good grief, why on earth did I finish this book?!

Although I found so much to dislike in The Casual Vacancy, I feel like themes of class difference and social issues in modern society are not well covered in current literature.  I wanted so much to find a thread of redemption in the book that I read to the end still thinking I might find one.  Unfortunately, the smallness of the characters’ inner selves failed in the end, as their half-hearted efforts and pious detachment brought about preventable tragedy and very little indication that anything would ever change.  I realize that’s probably painfully realistic, and perhaps the point of the book is to make us (not just British readers, but all of us) feel revolted by our own inhumanity toward others.

That said, I find myself hoping that another author will tackle similar themes in a slightly less bleak fashion.  I do think the book had some literary merit, and can think of reasons why Rowling might have gone for broke on the ugliness thing to establish her literary bona fides, but overall I’m just not sure the good points outweigh the bad.

If you’ve read The Casual Vacancy, what did you think of it?


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5 thoughts on “The Casual Vacancy

  1. This was an excellent review. So well articulated. I probably won’t be giving this book a try. I can overlook the language, but I, too, tire of the constant sexual references in some popular books today.

  2. Thanks for this review and the perspective offered, and I especially resonate with your final paragraph!

    I’m also curious if Rowling will continue to write and what future writing will look like. I definitely think that if an obscure author had written this book that I would probably not have continued into the book. But knowing she had previous literary credibility, I kept searching to find it here. I did, but not quite what I expected even knowing this would be different. And we can definitely credit Rowling for having a grasp on the depths of human depravity (both here and in HP).

    I did find it interesting that among the Amazon ratings, there are more 1-star ratings than 5-star.

    P.S. I told my husband about a chapter into the book that I was returning it and dropping it. Not sure why I continued after that, but in the end I did! 🙂
    Keren recently posted..Reading 2013: Platform

  3. Keren’s review made me consider reading it, but ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to invest my reading time in such unlikable characters. Part of it is just timing; right now I’m still wanting lighter and happier reads.

    Your review doesn’t make me regret deciding to pass on this book. I’d love to read something with these themes, but I really don’t like unrelentingly bleak books.
    Sheila @ The Deliberate Reader recently posted..March Recap

  4. Excellent review. I don’t often return books to the library unfinished, particularly ones by authors that I otherwise adore, but this one went back after I struggled with its bleak viewpoints and oppressive familial misery for about 200 pages. You pinpoint my feelings exactly, and I am still glad not to have finished it.

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