I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write this post. I prefer recommending books to reviewing them – why spend time writing about something you didn’t love and want to share? But I know a few people are interested in knowing what a non-critic thinks of JK Rowling’s first post-HP book. So I’m going to go for it, there will be slight spoilers I imagine so look away now if you want to!
Firstly, I’m in two minds as to whether reviewers should mention Harry Potter. On one hand, The Casual Vacancy is a completely different genre and targets a completely different audience to HP plus HP was a once-in-a-lifetime bestseller that is pretty impossible to follow. BUT on the other hand, I loved HP – I think it has brilliant story-telling, characters you fall in love with and root for and has some amazing page-turning moments and this was the reason I brought The Casual Vacancy – I was sure that JK Rowling’s next book would include these things. However, other writers switch genres and audience but maintain their great story-telling powers. I must mention Stephenie Meyer – she wrote a bestselling series I loved and followed this with an adult sci-fi book – this is not a genre I ever read but I loved The Host – it is actually better written than Twilight too. So it can, and has, been done.
After that long intro, let’s begin the review. The Casual Vacancy is pretty hard to describe. The best genre I can come up with is contemporary adult fiction – it is a study of a small English town that houses middle-class families desperate to distance themselves from a council estate on the edge of their town. The basic plot is that one of the town’s councillors dies leaving his seat vacant and there are two camps wanting to fill it – those who want the council estate to be governed by the nearest big town and to close an addiction clinic, and those who think they should keep both. My biggest issue with the book was that when you don’t have a page-turnng plot, you want characters to root for but the characters here are not people you want to root for. They are not likeable. They do horrible things. It is raw in it’s study of human nature – every bad thing you can imagine happens – abuse, rape, self-harming, suicide, adultery, bullying etc. It’s all piled in and the problem with including everything is it’s not as shocking – you are desensitised to it as it appears in every chapter.
I’ve read some reviews that think the book is to display JK Rowling’s socialist politics – even this would have been helpful but for me, the book doesn’t do that. Yes – the middle class do bad things but so does the working class. Yes at a point near the end, the middle-class characters literally turn a blind eye to the poor leading to something truly tragic but the poorer characters make bad decisions too. You can say that the politicians should have done more to help the poor but it’s hard to care about the characters she chose to write about. The only one I liked in the end was a middle-class teenager so I’m at a loss what she really wanted us to take from the book. Or I totally missed the point, which may well be the case. But if I did, surely others will too?
I started to wish that the death that starts the books as suspicious – giving me something to care about through the large page count. But instead I struggled through the book – determined to get to the end in the hope it would be amazing. If it hadn’t been written by JK Rowling I probably would have given up halfway through. I was left disappointed – there’s no denying it and I would be very wary of buying another JK Rowling book, which I can’t believe I’m saying after how much I loved Harry Potter. I can really only give my personal opinion on this book – there may well be many fans of it – I just didn’t love it. But JK Rowling will always be a huge inspiration to me as writer and I hope this book brings her continued success.
Who else has read it or will be reading it?