I bought and read J.K. Rowling’s newest venture into novel writing, and – oh dear -I didn’t like this book. I know what people who defend it are going to say: it’s not Harry Potter, it’s a book for adults, what did you expect.
Well, I didn’t expect Hogwarts, but I did expect some of the elements the Harry Potter books had – a plot that was clever and entertaining, memorable and interesting characters, and fluent, to- the- point writing. The Casual Vacancy was none of these things. It’s a story about a sleepy fictional village in England, Pagford. In the first chapter, one of its council members dies, creating the eponymous casual vacancy on Pagford’s council. The rest of the novel explores the miserable lives of several characters that represent the middle and lower classes like cardboard cut-outs from a Daily Mail article, while they engage in political and personal struggles to fill the Council’s empty seat. The tension basically boils down to what will become of the Fields, the estate on the village’s borders, full of stereotypical benefits seekers and drug addicts. The characters are not in any way interesting or even likeable. At the best, their teenage children are the most sympathetic members of cast, but not by much.
500 pages of poorly drawn character sketches later and the novel reaches an unsurprising, unhappy ending. It’s rather dreary and depressing, but the novel’s greatest problem is that it’s just so boring. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be an attempt at social satire, but if it was, it failed to be funny or entertaining. It mostly feels like a clumsy attempt at preaching socialism to the reader. I’m not sure Rowling entirely understood the idea of an ‘adult’ novel either – she mostly seems to consider sex, profanity, and violence to set it apart from children’s’ books. Especially the swearing made me want to cringe:
‘“I ain’ gotta do fuckin’ anythin”, said Terri furiously. “Cheeky little bitch,” she added, for good measure.’
– JKR, The Casual Vacancy, p. 407
J.K. Rowling has said in an interview that she felt like she was free to write anything she wanted, and thus wrote this book for herself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it would have been better if she had kept it for herself: it just wasn’t good. I can’t help but feel that if someone previously unknown had written this, it would not have been read or published.