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J. K. Rowling – The Casual Vacancy

January 10, 2014

100. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling (2012)

Length: 512 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Started: 07 December 2013
Finished: 19 December 2013

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I didn’t read it right away, but once all the buzz had died down, I was still curious.

Pagford is full of
small-town charm but the same jerks
you find everywhere.

Summary: Barry Fairbrother was a generally well-liked inhabitant of the small British town of Pagford, as well as a member of its village council, but when he dies unexpectedly, the whole town is thrown into turmoil. Barry’s seat on the council is open, and the council is in the midst of an important decision – what to do about the low-income neighborhood of the Fields. Barry, who had been born in the Fields himself, was the head of the contingent who wanted to keep the Fields within Pagford’s ambit, but there is a sizeable portion of the council who would rather let the neighborhood and its inhabitants become someone else’s problem. Members of both sides of the debate have their own ideas about what should happen to Barry’s vacant seat, but the real turmoil doesn’t begin until someone begins posting to the council website under the name “TheGhostofBarryFairbrother” – and their postings start to unearth the darkest secrets about members of the council, and of the town.

Review: This was a very strange book for me, in a lot of ways. I absolutely would not have picked it up if it hadn’t been for the pull of Rowling’s name – a book about small town politics is not something that would appeal to me on its own – but I wound up very caught up in the life of Pagford and its inhabitants, and I found myself constantly going back to it, and thinking about long after I’d finished reading. It’s especially strange since The Casual Vacancy is kind of the anti-Harry Potter, and Pagford is the anti-Hogwarts – no magic anywhere, just more grim reality lurking around every corner. And a lot of the reality that Rowling deals with in this book is pretty grim – drug abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, adultery, rape, and more – and while it doesn’t wallow in it, but it does not sugar coat a single second of it, either.

This same attitude applies to the characters. There are a TON of characters – at times it seems like everyone in the damn village gets a POV chapter – and I initially had trouble keeping them all straight. But Rowling’s got a gift for creating well-developed, realistic, multi-dimensional characters, even when each of them is only on-screen for a few pages at a time. But again, in stark contrast to the Harry Potter books, I really disliked just about everyone in this book. Not that they were all horrible people – they were just people, with all the flaws and foibles that entails, but even the more sympathetic characters had at least one really unpleasant aspect. It’s the same hyper-realism as with the plot – I felt like I recognized a lot of these people, and maybe the fact that they were all vaguely awful is part of the point – everyone can be petty, or jealous, or mean-spirited, or selfish, or cowardly, or weak, or self-deluded some of the time. And again, it’s strange how much I was drawn to the story, given how much I disliked almost everyone involved. But I found the whole thing really compelling, and was absolutely in tears by the last page.

I will admit to a fairly high level of cognitive dissonance regarding this book, and its author, that did pull me out of the story occasionally, particularly in the beginning. My issue is this: the teenagers in this book are just as realistically portrayed as everyone else (although with one exception, I didn’t dislike them as much as I did the adults.) They are dealing with issues of self-harm. They are having casual sex, or scheming about ways in which they might get to have casual sex. They are smoking joints and using swiped bottles of alcohol to get black-out drunk. They are cruel to each other for no good reason. And all of these things are legit things that teenagers do. These characters read like real teenagers. So that means that Rowling knows what real teenagers are like… which means she knew that when Harry & Co. were teenagers, they were probably…. and then my brain melts, because: no.

So, yeah, this is a strange book. It’s really good, intricate and well drawn and with a story that fits together well and a pull that sneaks up on you. And while I didn’t quite enjoy it, exactly, given how uncomfortable a lot of it made me, it’s definitely one of those books that’s going to stick with me. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Tough one. Rowling fans are probably the most likely to pick it up, but again, be warned: this is the anti-Hogwarts. It reminded me a bit of Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother in terms of the setting and the characterization, although with way fewer attempts at humor.

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First Line: Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 588: “Today’s long skirt might have been made of hessian, and she had teamed it with a thick lumpy cardigan in pea green.” – a coarse jute fabric similar to sacking, used for bags, upholstery, etc.
    .
  • Location 925: “Nobody came in answer to the bell, but she could hear a small child grizzling through the ground-floor window on her left, which was ajar.” – to fret; whine.
    .
  • Location 1178: ““Have either of you got any paracetamol?” Kay asked Alex and Una, once the drug worker had given her full details of Terri’s attendance and lack of progress at the clinic, and rung off.” – a mild analgesic and antipyretic drug used as an alternative to aspirin. US name: acetaminophen.
    .
  • Location 1874: “Tessa heard Parminder’s voice, its Brummie accent still discernible after all these years in Pagford.” – of or relating to Birmingham.
    .
  • Location 2337: “Halfway down the nave, on the epistle side, St. Michael himself stared down from the largest window, clad in silver armor.” – the side of a church on which the Epistle is read during the Mass or Eucharist. Facing the altar, it is the right-hand side.
    .
  • Location 3420: “She would not forgive Kay for the rude outstretched plate; the woman was bolshy and patronizing, exactly like Lisa, who had monopolized every get-together with her political views and her job in family law, despising Samantha for owning a bra shop.” – obstreperous.

    .

  • Location 3513: “He had been sitting here all evening, trying to compose his election pamphlet, for which he had decided to use the same photograph as was featured on the Winterdown website: full face, with a slightly anodyne grin, his forehead steep and shiny.” – Capable of soothing or eliminating pain.
    .
  • Location 3771: “Best of all had been rounders and athletics.” – a ball game in which players run between posts after hitting the ball, scoring a ’rounder’ if they run round all four before the ball is retrieved.
    .
  • p. 4211: ““Meaning,” said Howard, the happy cynosure of all eyes, “That I got sent an anonymous letter about you a couple of weeks ago.”” – An object that serves as a focal point of attention and admiration.
    .
  • Location 4613: “She had only ever visited a gurdwara a handful of times in her life; there was none in Pagford, and the one in Yarvil was tiny and dominated, according to her parents, by Chamars, a different caste from their own.” – a Sikh place of worship; one of the untouchable communities, found mainly in the northern states of India, Pakistan and Nepal.
    .
  • Location 5463: “A packet of Rizlas lay brazenly on the desk beside the computer.” – a brand of rolling papers and cigarette tubes or blanks.
    .
  • Location 6101: “She came while imagining Miles watching them, furiously, through binoculars, from a distant pedalo.” – a small human-powered watercraft that a person drives by pedaling, which turns a paddle wheel; a pedal-boat.
    .
  • Location 6575: “Howard and Maureen had performed together many a time over the years; Howard loved to sing, and Maureen had once performed backing vocals for a local skiffle band.” – Jazz, folk, or country music played by performers who use unconventional instruments, such as kazoos, washboards, or jugs, sometimes in combination with conventional instruments.
    .
  • Location 7472: “She was showering benefits around her in the manner of a demob-happy soldier, and these promises, made so lightly, gilded the prospect of Andrew’s own move.” – short for demobilization.
    .

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2014 9:15 am

    You liked this more than I did. It was too character driven for me. I needed more action.

    • January 11, 2014 12:41 pm

      Kathy – I totally get that. Trying to write the summary was tough – since laid out like that, it really doesn’t sound that appealing.

  2. January 10, 2014 1:30 pm

    Honestly – I am scared of the book. I bought it right away and there it sits on the shelf. I adore Harry Potter and do not want anything to keep me from saying what I always have, J K Rowling is brilliant.

    • January 11, 2014 12:42 pm

      Sheila – I hear you. I have books that I leave on my shelves for all sorts of reasons. And I don’t think this book will keep you from saying that Rowling is brilliant – just a very, very different sort of brilliant.

  3. January 11, 2014 11:53 am

    It was a tough one for me. Too tough, I admit. I couldn’t finish it. But go you for sticking to it and enjoying it.

    • January 11, 2014 12:43 pm

      squee – I’m surprised by my reaction, honestly; books where I don’t like any of the characters are usually the ones that I find the easiest to put down, but something about this one kept drawing me back despite myself.

  4. January 11, 2014 12:31 pm

    I started this on audio, but I couldn’t get through. I thought it was a book I would much prefer to read, so I borrowed a copy from a friend. I think I might read it next.

  5. January 12, 2014 10:48 pm

    Reading the synopsis, I felt like I wasn’t going to like this one, and I didn’t at all. Of course it didn’t put me off JK Rowling’s future books — nothing could! — but I was sad not to love it better. Everyone was just so loathsome! There wasn’t a single character I liked at all, and after a while that bummed me out.

    • January 20, 2014 5:34 pm

      Jenny – I totally get that, and shared essentially the same feeling, but for some weird reason that I can’t quite explain, I found the whole thing fascinating despite everyone being so repellent.

  6. February 24, 2014 10:10 pm

    Good review. I particularly like your comment: everyone can be petty, or jealous, or mean-spirited, or selfish, or cowardly, or weak, or self-deluded some of the time. And again, it’s strange how much I was drawn to the story, given how much I disliked almost everyone involved

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