The spotlight for The Casual Vacancy was always going to be bright and glaring. It was never going to be reviewed like other books. It would be reviewed in the context, and in the shadow of, Harry Potter’s success. J. K. Rowling herself would be reviewed as much, if not more, than the book itself. I was wary and cautious and maybe even a little cynical before I started reading (both as a reader and a bookseller) but I was hooked straight away and I really enjoyed it.
It often sounds like a cliché when a writer describes their book as a story they had to tell but I think in this case it is true. The Casual Vacancy is more that an exploration of a small English village and its squabbles over a vacant seat on the council. It is a novel about class but not in the manner we’re accustomed to. It is a sharp, dark and biting indictment of society told in an honest, authentic and at times confronting way. It is an exposé of the hypocrisy of the middle and working class towards, for want of a better term, the welfare class and the way the poor and under privileged, the drug addicted and abused are viewed and treated.
The novel is sprawled with characters, few of whom are redeemable, especially the male characters. Fathers in the book (the ones who have stuck around) are particularly detestable. The one beacon of light is Barry Fairbrother whose death in the novel’s opening is the catalyst for all the tensions that have been brewing in the village. But despite the people of the village not being reasonably endearing you are invested and caught up in their stories and their world.
Witnessing the village’s bickering, political manoeuvrings and contempt of the council estates are the village’s children. Rowling pulls no punches with the children in this novel. They smoke, take drugs, have sex and are subject to emotional and physical violence regardless of their address. But in some ways they are able to see the class divisions for what they are; false boundaries and they also clearly see their parents’ hypocrisy and try to expose it. But children are not ready for the unforgiving world of adults.
Regardless of the hype and the previous success J.K. Rowling has enjoyed The Casual Vacancy is a powerful novel and a thought-provoking read. Rowling has an important story to tell and she tells it with passion and authenticity. It is not the perfect novel, what really is, but it is a great story and quite frankly that’s all that matters.
Classification: Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)
Format: Paperback (197mm x 127mm x 35mm)
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 18-Jul-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom