The Casual Vacancy (review)

So, maybe you heard that JK Rowling wrote a new novel. Maybe you really liked the Harry Potter novels, and you’re looking forward to getting another book from the pen that gave you those.

Well, don’t get too excited.

The Casual Vacancy is an adult (as in meant for grownups, not as in pornographic) non-genre novel. I read adult fiction all the time. To be honest, I do not read much non-genre fiction. It’s entirely possible that this novel is an excellent example of what non-genre fiction should be and plays off its tropes and traditions perfectly. In which case, let me just say that I’m glad I mostly stick to science fiction and fantasy. I was ready to stop reading this book by page 25, but I stuck with it under the principle that it’s healthy for writers to read things we don’t like, so that we can think about why we don’t like them and thus avoid those things in our own writing.

This book is set against a backdrop of small town British politics, where a rather large cast of characters ranging in age from teenaged to 50+ years old are effected by the death of council member and all-around ridiculously popular guy Barry Fairbrother, who spearheaded one side of a raging political debate that divided the town.

Writing that summary was a more interesting experience for me than actually reading the book. It’s 420 pages of a bunch of ceaselessly self-centered, entitled people being incredibly petty toward each other. The only characters I liked at all were a few of the teenagers, many of whom were in the process of being abused and destroyed by their utterly awful parents. And at least when the teenagers had moments of being self-centered and terrible, they had the excuse of being teenagers.

And yes, I know that in reality, adults are generally selfish and awful people too. But that really seems to be an argument to not spend my free time reading about what I can easily encounter in my real life.

I didn’t care about the characters, which meant that I did not in the least bit care about the minutiae of their lives, their crumbling relationships, or their desires. I spent much of the book asking myself if one scene or the other was really necessary, because for example I already knew that Simon Price was a total bastard, that Stuart Wall was the most unlikable teenager in the entire book, that Gavin was utterly pathetic and that Samantha’s marriage with her husband was a total disappointment. The last time I felt like that when reading a novel was when my book club read Under the Dome, which we all agreed could have been about 400 pages shorter because yes we get the point these people are terrible. I really hope JK Rowling hasn’t fallen into the Stephen King trap of desperately needing an editor.

Don’t run out and get this book if you liked Harry Potter and want more of the same. Harry Potter had a cast with likable characters, and an intensely interesting world – so when the plot lagged, you at least had those to keep you going. This novel has none of those benefits, and JK Rowling doesn’t make up for it with memorable or beautiful prose.

Perhaps because it’s not a young adult novel, there’s apparently even less imperative to keep the plot moving at a snappy pace, and it generally stagnates. Every little thing that happens then seems to require we get the opinion of everyone in the rather large cast, some of whom it took me nearly half the book to get straight because they were so similarly awful. (Naming a woman Shirley and her daughter-in-law Samantha was not a good choice, by the way.) I would have been less frustrated by the slow pace of the plot if I’d actually given even half a crap about any of the characters. Ultimately I only stuck it out for Sukhvinder and Andrew – since Andrew actually manages to grow and change as a character.

(Spoilers, if you care)

The thing that really burns me about this book is that the plot conflicts that get hammered the whole time – what’s going to happen to the council housing? what’s going to happen to the addiction clinic? – never actually get resolved. Instead the end of the book is an unsubtle statement about children in poverty dying because privileged middle class people are too wrapped up in their own selfish concerns. Which is a point to be made, certainly, but from the standpoint of story structure it leaves the novel unresolved and disappointing.

Also, if that’s the point JK Rowling wanted to make, I can’t help but feel it could have happened in a lot fewer pages and with greater impact.


If you’re still curious about it, get the book out from the library and try it that way first. If you like it, buy it then, and feel free to tell me you think I’m full of crap. Tastes differ, after all.

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