Book Review: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★☆
This novel slowly creeps up on you... in a casual way. So slowly that it took all of February and most of March for me to finish reading it. I started it actually on time, at the beginning of February, got a few solid chapters into it and then got depressed with the dreary lives of the Pagford citizens, put it down, and didn't get back into it until me mum (like what I did there?) loaned me the audio recording.
The conflict thickens because me mum only loaned me some of the cds, as she wasn't finished listening to the conclusion. So I read the beginning of the book, got frustrated, listened to a good part of the middle on cd, and then had to resort to reading the last 100 pages or so with my own two eyes. But it is in the bag, folks! All 512 pages of the sucker. And I only admire J.K. Rowling more for having written yet another complex tome, this time without quidditch games to fall back on. (On a superficial note, and a review bonus 2-for-1: if you do attempt to read this and get bogged down, definitely check out the audio recording. I know that sounds like something for the elderly or the vision impaired, but the narrator is great--not one of those annoying drones--and really helped me catch a lot of details and grow attached to some of the characters I hadn't previously by reading it on the page. It was the boost I needed, and once fully immersed returning to reading--rather than listening--was easy and I couldn't wait to find out what happened.)
The basis is simple on the surface: Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council, dies unexpectedly. The town is divided over longstanding city boundary issues, and the empty council seat creates an opportunity for the upcoming vote to be swung either way The story follows the citizens who choose to run for council election, and airs the dirty laundry each member of this apparently idyllic little village tries desperately to keep hidden. With a sort of mundane plot foundation that harkens a Jane Austen's society drama, the complexities of the characters, families, and their lives (past and present) are slowly unraveled. Only Rowling could take something as tedious as a small city council election and elevate it into thrilling drama with multiple unexpected revelations.
Rowling is deft at those twisty plots involving lots of characters. You think I had complaints about my January pick having too many perspectives? Well, I spent the first 200 pages of The Casual Vacancy trying to remember WHO everyone was and HOW they were connected to one another. For such a "small town" story, there sure were a lot of key players. And none of them - not a one - appears to be happy with their lot. However, what's magical about the way Rowling writes, and what was lacking from Beautiful Ruins, is you somehow sense that all these folks traveling separate, depressing paths will intersect at some point and it will all make sense in the end. It's worth it to hold out, trust me. And Rowling is so talented that though the topic and material wasn't my favorite, the storytelling was just. that. good. that I kept on. She always - just as in the Harry Potter books - gives you the right balance of "Aha! I knew it." and "Holy shit, did that just happen?" moments. She's just so darn clever.
Please don't read this thinking it will be like Harry Potter. Don't even think about Harry Potter at all. Pick it up and read it as if someone else entirely wrote it, because otherwise you'll spend some valuable time expecting to be taken on a magical journey, with a heart-wrenching but ultimately happy ending. This is not that book. This is a book for adults, with all the tedious, depressingly small things adults have to deal with. There is no magic except for Rowling's gift for weaving an intricate tale. There's barely even a hero, just failing marriages, miserable teenagers, and malicious busybodies. This book is about selfishness, close-mindedness, bullies, actions, and reactions. This book is about battles--personal and professional--and revenge, and how some people get what they deserve and some don't get what they deserve at all. Small town, small minds, big drama. Read it.
★ - Hated it. ★★ - Didn't like it. ★★★ - Liked it. ★★★★ - Really liked it. ★★★★★ - Absolutely loved it.