BOOK REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

By Nicholas H-J.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling is the most disappointing book since Mockingjay, the finale of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. Rowling, recognized internationally for her award-winning, record-breaking Harry Potter series, attempts to exit her comfort zone with her new book, but fails to do so. The premise of the novel is the following: a councilman, Barry Fairweather, suddenly dies of an aneurysm, much to the dismay of the surrounding town of Pagford. However, after his death, various members of the town begin to squabble over his empty council seat. Behind the scenes, teenagers fight with their parents, the rich disagree with the poor, and so on. The premise sounds promising enough, but The Casual Vacancy fails to achieve the most basic goal of a novel: to create an emotional attachment with the readers.

The most important component of any work of fiction is its characters. An author can write an amazing story, full of interesting plot dynamics and twists, but without fascinating characters to populate that story, it all becomes rather uninteresting.  This is the case in The Casual Vacancy, and as a result, the readers cannot connect with what is going on.   The novel is written in third-person omniscient, full of many different character viewpoints. The omniscient style is effective for stories like this, as these viewpoints allow the reader to connect with multiple sides of the conflict if they are used wisely and sparingly. In The Casual Vacancy, there are approximately 35 characters viewpoints, and the number of characters shoved into the novel makes the story feel bloated and ultimately unmemorable. The characters do not resonate as they should because there are too many of them. Motivations are vague. Back story is unclear. Characters are bland and uninteresting. In fact, the only memorable characters are the ones that J.K. Rowling is known for: the teenagers. Alas, it is only the five teenage characters that the reader ends up sympathizing with and caring about, as they are dynamic and complex like actual human beings.

Secondly, the plot of The Casual Vacancy is poorly handled, to say the least. The first problem with the plot is the lack of build up and direction. In the first three pages, Barry Fairweather dies. Following this is 100 pages of mostly uninteresting characters mourning for this man the reader knows barely anything about. This results in an immense lack of build up. Then, after pages and pages of whining and complaining, snooping and meandering, the climax of the novel occurs … or does it? The plot supposedly leads up to the vote for who will take over Barry’s seat. Alas, the name of the electoral victor is revealed in one sentence. One. The novel then goes on to a finale that comes out of nowhere and is virtually unrelated to anything that occurred before. A plot should lead up to something. The climax and resolution should be the product of what came before, but this is not achieved in The Casual Vacancy.

The novel has many more problems that go noticed, such as poor techniques in the prose, clumsily written back story, many scenes of filler, and repetition, but those cannot be fully explained without spoiling plot points.

With all these negatives in mind, it is still important to consider the main virtue of this novel: the thematic elements and motifs presented. The Casual Vacancy presents hard-hitting and relevant social issues in a way that can be understood by readers of any background. Social problems, such as addiction, abuse, and risky sexual behaviour in teens are depicted fairly accurately. The tension between different social classes is particularly well done.  Rowling presents a town where there is a clear dividing line between the rich and the poor, and the way she handles the interactions between the two is fascinating.

That being said, the main problems with The Casual Vacancy are the basic elements needed for a high-quality novel: characters and plot. It is especially disconcerting in Rowling’s case because we know that she can do so much better. The Harry Potter series was not perfect, but its fascinating characters and imaginative world make it wonderful. There is something magical about Harry  Potter, something that connected with the child in all of us, something that made us know that we would get our acceptance letter to Hogwarts in due time. In The Casual Vacancy, none of this is achieved. It is just a pile of pages bound up into a book that I read because Rowling’s name was stamped on the front. I admire Rowling for diving into adult material and into a genre out of her comfort zone, but it is sad to see some of her literary magic go down the drain. Potter was so popular because of the characters the readers cared about and the wonderful story. The Casual Vacancy will not inspire such devotion because its characters are boring and the plot is slow and meaningless. I desperately hope that Rowling’s next endeavour in writing is better than this one.

OVERALL RATING: 2 out of 5