The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

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The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: A disection of small town life from the creator of THAT wizard. It wasn't quite what we expected.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Little, Brown
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408704202

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It's hard to know how to describe my experience reading JK Rowling's new book, and her first departure from the world of Hogwarts. 'Liked it' doesn't seem appropriate, because I didn't really. I found it very bleak, depressing and disturbing to be honest. I have a friend who is reading it at the moment and she says she's really enjoying it, which just makes me shake my head because, really, this isn't the sort of book you enjoy.

You'll know already about the swearing. There is a lot, and if you're reading the story thinking about Harry Potter then it is a little disturbing, but if you're seeing the book almost as a social commentary, entirely separate to the world of Howarts, well then it's less unexpected since a lot of people do swear. A lot. Maybe JKR threw in some extra F***s, just to distance herself even further from the kidlit genre, but mostly I felt it was there to tell us what kind of characters she was writing about.

The characters are key. JKR has written some great characters for HP, and the same is true in this story. I confess there was a point when I wondered if I would keep reading because initially she introduces one character after another, on and on and on, until you wonder if the whole book will be introductions without any plot whatsoever! Hold tight though. In the end she does manage to use them all, and though it may not seem that way, you will be able to remember who everyone is eventually.

The story, as you can tell from the synopsis, is rather blah. I don't think it's really about plot. It's about character development. More observational than anything else. The ending, I thought, was really well done. It's ridiculously dramatic, yet entirely believable, and it brings things together in such a god-awful climax that it sits well within the book as a whole.

I do wonder, though, what her point was. Why did she write this book, this particular book? She's the lady who gave the world Harry Potter - she could've written anything she wanted to. So why did she choose this? What message does she have with this book? I'm not sure, personally, if there was a message. Other than life is, often, hard and dirty and hurtful and hateful. That life is unfair, in multiple ways. That people are unhappy, right now, all over the world, for so many different reasons. It's not exactly the message of love that she gave us with Harry. It's almost the opposite, since love isn't enough to save anyone in this story, and although some characters change and grow they are few and far between and the majority continue their depressing lives, making the same mistakes over and over with no magical happy endings.

So. I didn't enjoy the book, but from about 1/3 of the way in I found it compelling. I felt some more judicious editing might have helped at times, but the ending was tight and really well done. I don't think I'd ever want to re-read it, and it feels both very contemporary with its social commentary and yet also very old-fashioned in the way a Jane Austen novel would deal with the ins and outs of the lives of lots of people without anything very much particularly happening.

I missed her playful humour. One of my favourite aspects of the Potter stories was the undercurrent of laughter, even during the difficult, frightening times. So although there are glimpses, occasionally, this is a far more serious book. I'm glad I read it though, and managed to do so before I could see what other people thought, and I'm fascinated to see what she writes next because going from hugely popular children's fiction to, I suspect, widely criticised modern literature is a massive jump, and I wonder where, eventually, she will settle?

You might also enjoy Kiss and Kin by Angela Lambert.

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Kathryn Graham - @ktmaxi on Twitter said:

Interesting review from a reader who was obviously a Harry Potter fan when younger. Thought it seemed an honest and well thought out response to this book, but definitely detected huge disappointment.

Haven’t read The Casual Vacancy yet so can’t comment. I mean to read it because I think I should – out of curiosity if nothing more – BUT am seriously put off by knowing I’ll be stepping into real grunginess..J.K. Rowling may have felt a social compulsion to write this, exposing all the ghastliness of a lot of today’s society, but will it change anything? Life is hard for most of us and reading a good book which cheers us up is one of the things that gets us by, so why has she produced such a dreary sounding book? Dickens wrote to expose social evils of his time, but he did manage to include comedy and enjoyment in his novels too, somehow!