Book Review: “The Casual Vacancy” (2012) by J.K. Rowling


Michael Gambon in the BBC adaptation.


After the Harry Potter series left a terrible, gaping hole in my hearts (in all of our hearts, I should say), I had mixed feelings about the very thought of a new book by J.K. Rowling. What if it wasn’t as good as the Potter series, which had made such a profound impact on my life? What if I actually hated this new novel? Was I ready to be let down by a writer who had been with me from childhood all the way to my first year of university?

I bought The Casual Vacancy the week it came out – and then left it on my bookshelf for three years, untouched. Every once in a while I would glance at the shining red-and-yellow hardback, glaring at me from the other side of the room. I felt guilty, like some sort of literary coward. So what if this book wasn’t any good? Did I really think that would taint my love for Harry Potter? And what if it did? Isn’t taking off the nostalgia goggles and facing inevitable disappointment a part of growing up? With the BBC adaptation coming out this year, I decided that it was finally time to face the music of mediocrity and tackle The Casual Vacancy once and for all.

In order to understand The Casual Vacancy properly, we must first talk about the Victorian social problem novel, also known as the Condition-of-England novel. These were works of Victorian literature that focused on social and political issues that were the result of the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century (think Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South or Hard Times by Charles Dickens). The novels specifically examined class relations and the growing unrest between the rich and the poor. They served as a platform for messages of humanitarianism and reform, and helped raise awareness among readers of the appalling working and living conditions of the lower classes. These authors would write about the suffering of the poor in great detail, even working the dialect of the emerging working class into their novels. It was all about appealing to their readers’ social conscience and getting them to empathise.

The Casual Vacancy is an attempt to do exactly that: use a fictional narrative to expose real social problems. The tension between the Pagford elite and the inhabitants of ‘the Fields’ positively screams Victorian, and Rowling herself has described the novel’s inspirations as “sort of nineteenth-century: the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society.” We have conservatives in power trying to fight off change, provincial small-mindedness, plenty of village gossip, and a scandal or two – it’s basically a George Eliot novel. In fact, if you were to put Middlemarch, the character of Kelly Bailey from Misfits, and the Dursleys into a blender, The Casual Vacancy would be the result – or, as one reader hilariously dubbed it, Mugglemarch (that is such a good joke I am almost angry that I didn’t come up with it first).

Sadly, having a Point to make is part of Rowling’s downfall. The Casual Vacancy is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. The funeral at the end of the novel is so bleak it would make Thomas Hardy wince and we are left with nothing but a pile of smoking rubble and a vague sense of guilt. It seems that this was exactly what Rowling wanted:

In my head, the working title for a long time was ‘Responsible,’ because for me this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.

And I get that, I do. The citizens of Pagford have let down those who needed their help the most – children, the poor, society’s outsiders. Their egocentric blindness and denial reflect the ugly side of humanity, and it is very easy to see their flaws in the people around us. However, Rowling works so hard to get us to think about The State of Things that she fails to breathe actual life into her story and let it evolve naturally. The different characters that inhabit Pagford have been overwritten to death, and another rewrite or two could have saved the reader at least one hundred pages.

I admire that Rowling decided to change genre entirely and take a chance on something she wanted to write instead of what readers expected of her. She had something she needed to get off her chest, and so she did. Bravo! And I’ll give her this: the concept of The Casual Vacancy is well thought out and the ‘moral of the story’ worth thinking about. However, the whole thing feels constructed and planned out all the way through, which is ultimately why its desired impact fell flat for me.

My advice: skip it and donate to a charity of your choice instead – or even better, find a way to get involved in your own community. Instead of wrestling your way through all 503 pages of this book, put that time into volunteering instead. I’m sure Rowling would approve.

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