Book review: “The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling

I read voraciously and I don’t do book reviews for all I read, because that would get boring for you really fast. But I think this one deserves some “notes”, meaning I’m not going to recap plot, other than the very basics, but talk about what I liked and what I didn’t, for the most part. 

PLOT CAPSULE: A Pagford Parish Councilman drops dead on his 19th wedding anniversary, leaving a “casual vacancy” on the council. (Casual vacancy—an open seat created because of death or incapacitation) The seat needs filled, and who fills it will determine the fates of a local drug addiction clinic, as well as the jurisdiction of a nearby housing project. 

LIKES: As usual, Rowling creates worlds well. Pagford is well-realized and thought out. The  problems are contemporary, and the descriptions of poverty ring authentic.  This isn’t Harry Potter, by a long shot. 

DISLIKES: This isn’t Harry Potter, by a long shot. What I mean by that is that not a single character is redeemable—and yes, that includes Krystal Wheedon, who is probably meant to be the “heroine” of the book. She’s a teenager whose mother is a drug addict (who prostitutes herself to get money for the drugs) and has four children by different fathers, two of whom have been taken away by the state. Krystal tries to save her brother, Robbie, from the neglect and squalor of the home they live in. For that, she is commendable. But when a character in the book describes her as “sweet”, and another wants to be just like her, I want to lose my lunch. She tries, yes, to live her best in the life she’s been given, but she never tries to go beyond that. 

The book is divided between teenagers and adults. The teenagers are stock types: “I-hate-small-towns” (there’s an adult like that, too); the bullied teen who cuts herself in the bathroom at night; the cynic, etc. The way they are drawn, they are flat and don’t take on a life of their own. The adults are hardly better, being consumed by their passions: food, drink, a forbidden love, or paralyzing fear. Barry, the deceased councillor, had good qualities, but, in the manner of Dickens’ Mrs. Jellyby, totally ignored his own family in order to save Krystal and others like her. 

No one has a moral compass, no one has a moral code. Everyone has deep, dark secrets that come to light as the novel moves toward a very Hardy-esque ending (Think Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure). The world Rowling creates for her characters is a world where there is no way out, for anyone. The wife cannot escape her abusive husband; Krsytal cannot escape her mother; Samantha, one of the adults, cannot escape the small town of Pagford, which she despises. And since there are few, if any, characters to root for or support, the book quickly becomes quite depressing. 

Rowling has proved that she has great literary talents (we’ll let Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix slide here). They are not served well by this book.