The bulk of our book reviews focus on debut novels and books from independent publishers, however, occasionally we choose to review a novel written by a seasoned author. In this case, we chose The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. A book that made waves in publishing with feats like breaking the record for most pre-orders (more than $2 million) and for being so secretive in the weeks prior to its release. Simply put, we wanted a chance to get a word in as well.
First a little history. We won’t bore you with details on Rowling’s past as the author of the Harry Potter novels, but there is something to note about children’s authors attempting to move into adult literature that sets a difficult stage for this book, at least historically. Even the beloved Roald Dahl had a difficult time harnessing the attention of adults with his literary fiction. Whether it’s an issue with content or audience expectation, the fact remains that many authors prior to Rowling’s first adult fiction release struggled with this task, proving this bar was set high from the get go. Add to this the fact that Rowling is one of the most lucrative authors in history and to say this book was mired in expectation would be an understatement. Each of these elements (and more) casts a certain light on The Casual Vacancy that is neither good nor bad, but highlights how a mix of fame and expectation inevitably affects how readers will respond to the novel. As you might expect, it also makes writing a review difficult. I wrote this review as if I was reading the book from any author of note. I expected strong writing. I expected a mature sensibility. I expected it to be good. And with that I can say, whole-heartedly, The Casual Vacancy is a very good book. It wasn’t perfect, and I have suspicions that Rowling’s reluctance to let an editor comb through it too much contributed to such flaws, but the book was fulfilling, and it delivered.
The novel takes place in the fictional town of Pagford and begins with the death of councilman, Barry Fairbrother. The open seat left by Fairbrother serves as a catalyst for many issues in town, the most notable being a divisive political argument regarding the available funding for public housing and a methadone clinic. The impending vote on this issue lifts a veil on a set of characters’ lives that comes into colorful focus as the pages of The Casual Vacancy turn over. The themes in the novel are many, oscillating from heroin addiction, cutting, adultery, love, and of course, the battle for a political seat largely driven by personal agendas. The point of view varies, with passages from both children and adults. It contains a cleverly plotted puppeteering act executed by the kids in town (independently and unknowingly from one another) that unearths many of the secrets pulsing beneath the town’s mundane surface. The book achieves its goal in delivering a message about the complexities of life and the fallibility of people, and to me it remained hopeful, even with its dark conclusion. The prose is enjoyable, with some truly gorgeous passages — there are flairs of brilliance here, I assure you — and the book has a very English feel, which contributes to the personality of the story in a very charming way.
The problems with the book are few, but distracting. The point of view shifts mid-page and mid-chapter feel jarring, and could have been smoothed considerably with the use of section breaks. Again, I suspect this was the result of Rowling’s stringent control over creative aspects of the book, and her reluctance to work with editors. I also felt the early chapters contained some forced passages regarding sex and sexuality. To me they came across as anchors for the reader; Rowling’s attempt to drive home the fact that this is an adult book. The feeling waned as I read on, but I can’t escape the sense that it was too heavy handed and would benefit from some trimming. In spite of these blips, The Casual Vacancy leaves a strong impression and is a great book by a talented writer. I don’t think Rowling deserves anything less than a round of applause from satisfied readers.