A book review: The Casual Vacancy

Title: The Casual Vacancy

Author: JK Rowling

Publisher: September 27th 2012, Little Brown Book Group

Synopsis: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils… Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

From dust jacket

So, here’s a toughie, I want to write a review of The Casual Vacancy and not mention anything about the fact that my mother bought me the book because she knows how much I loved Harry Potter. In fact let’s forget there was every Harry Potter, or the whole phenomena that surrounds Harry Potter. In fact let’s ignore the fact that this book is written by JK Rowling and pretend it’s by an author that we’ve never heard about. Are we there yet? Yes? OK I’ll start. (Actually I won’t as the cat has sat on my feet and my notes are on the iPad, which has not synced with this and heaven forbid I move and disturb my cat – ok I’ve retrieved my notes from gmail).

So in summary The Casual Vacancy is a very long book about a very small town with the most inordinate amount of dysfunctional, dislikeable, screwed up characters you could ever imagine. The book also contains very long words (some of which I had to go and look up) and sentences.

Right, now I’ve made a pun of the blurb on the dust jacket, I’m going to justify why I’m giving the book 2.5 stars.

My first big beef with the book is that I got to page 114 and still had no idea who was who. I’d read another scene and think: Good lord, it’s not another new character is it. And then I would realise it was actually a previously mentioned character in a new environment acting in such a way that gave me no clue it was the same person as in a previous scene fifty pages before.

All the adult characters were awful: really unlikeable, selfish, nasty horrible people. And stop reading now if you disagree with this, but you know, maybe this is because I naively surround myself with like-minded people, or I just totally ignore the adults I interact with every day, but even the people who piss me off to the extreme have some redeeming features. For instance, they start acting mushy in front of small furry animals or young children. Surely, the world is not jam packed with adults selfishly pursuing their own ends, blissfully unaware of the damage they are causing around them?

Now let’s move on to the teenagers. Every single one of them is screwed up in some way. You would have thought being called Gaia was enough, but she is the least messed up of the lot. Her  mother moved her to Pagford to pursue her love life, seemingly without discussion. I won’t spoil the book if you haven’t read it, but think about the worse thing that can happen to children and teenagers and it happens in this book.

Here are a couple of sentences that stopped me reading:

… one of the few ways Andrew had found to discompose Fats was to unsheathe his Epipen…

that line made me laugh out loud, and I don’t think it was meant to be funny.

…leaving Colin (whom Tessa – although she knew the rest of the world called him, including all the parents who had caught it from their children – never addressed as Cubby) to follow them…

This one made me stop reading and separate it into all the different clauses before I understood: Tessa never called her husband Cubby, even though everybody else did. Although, if you’ve noticed I have been trying to write sentences with parenthesis and dashes. I feel it’s a kind of a challenge to do so and do it in a way that makes the reader actually understand what they’re reading.

Then there’s p 144 where I got totally confused at why Parminder who had been reciting prayers one second was suddenly feeling ugly and checking her facebook page the next. After a couple of rereads I realised that Parminder became Sukhvinder towards the bottom of the page. Apparently I’ve become a little too reliant on hash marks or at least a double paragraph break to indicate change of point of view. Maybe I missed it because there was the prayer quote, or the fact that there wasn’t even a paragraph indent (OK so that could be the editing, but please).

My opinion of a good book, is when you don’t stop in the middle of reading it to make notes, when you don’t stop reading, because you can’t bear to be parted from the book.

At some point after all the interminable characters are introduced, the story as such kicks in. There’s this election to be won and the teenagers see it as a way to avenge themselves against their parents. In fact about two-thirds of the book is about the teenagers. That to me is when I actually wanted to know what was going to happen next, although it was unremittingly awful.

And there are a couple of the adults: Samantha and Gavin who are so not grown up, they almost fall into the teenager brackets. I did find myself laughing at their exploits and in turn feeling a bit sorry for them, whereas the fate of the overweight parish council leader left me cold.

Probably the best bits were when we were with Krystal Weedon and her mother. The writing was tight, the emotions so raw and as a reader I was completely drawn in. She was probably the realest of all them because perhaps at the end the book was about her. She was just surrounded and drowned out by all the others.

So at the end of the book, I felt several things, all of which are to do with WHO wrote the blooming book:

1)It could have been a hell of a lot shorter. If this had been any other author than JK Rowling, this book would be edited to about a third (or maybe two-thirds) of its size.
2) you don’t need to empty a thesaurus into an adult book.
3) The book would have been a lot better if the main character had been the main character.
There is no doubt that Rowling is able to craft complex plots and characters. She is able to tell a story, and there are some amazing passages in this book, but in the end it’s patchy. Too many times I was pulled completely out of the story telling and rather than reading a book it felt as if  it was a thesis of all that is wrong about Britain and how screwed up the system is. Books like How late it was, how late by James Kelman, or Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson do that without taking you out of the story, any Ken Loach film does it while telling you a story. At the end of the day I want a good story, not a big name.
And so I give The Casual Vacancy:

One response to “A book review: The Casual Vacancy

  1. Pingback: The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling | Sylvie's World is a Library·

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