BANG Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

casual vacancy jk rowling cover art
NOT HARRY POTTER.

I admit, I’ve been remiss. I haven’t been keeping you all up-to-date with the GGG book club’s choices for… um… approximately a year. Whoops. I know you have all been tearing out your hair and wailing (internally): But Dilovely, the books! Forget the rest of this drivel… the BOOKS!

I promise I will rectify the situation. We have been reading some really good books, worth writing home about.

But since this is one of the few times I actually bought a book (a virtual one, anyway) so soon after its release, I feel the need to tell you something about it post-haste. I usually don’t feel urgency about books – so far, basically just Emily Giffin and Jo-Ro have inspired this in me.

Most of you already know I’m a devoted Harry Potter fan, and am training my son to be a wizard (and my daughter too, eventually). That is why I was really excited to read The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Her first book written “for adults”. I knew it would not be in the same vein as HP, but I figured I’d be guaranteed to enjoy it.

It’s a story of a small (fictional) town in England, with a “small-world” feel, where everyone knows each other and is all up in each other’s business. The sudden death of one well-known man creates shock waves in the community, and the reader discovers how it affects the lives of the people he knew – and even some he didn’t.

(In case you are wondering, “The Casual Vacancy” refers to the deceased’s spot on the Parish Council that must be filled when he dies.)

Here are my thoughts and estimations – without spoilers.

You will likely be disappointed if:

  • You’re waiting for any mention whatsoever of Quidditch, Butterbeer, Animagi, or Hungarian Horntails. Sorry. There aren’t even any house-elves.
  • You want the action to revolve around one hero – here, the reader is privy to the thoughts of well over a dozen characters over the course of the book.
  • You expect any one of those characters to be as winsome as Harry (except in Order of the Phoenix when he’s kinda bitchy).
  • You prefer plots to follow predictable lines and/or contain lots of action and/or suspense.
  • You’d like to see the whole plot wrapped up in an epic, heart-thudding, satisfying finale where good triumphs over evil and true love poignantly prevails.

You will likely enjoy the book if:

  • You like lots of multidimensional characters with rough edges.
  • You want your novels to have a really gritty side, including sex, drugs, and… what was that last thing?
  • You have been hoping to discover that J.K.R. has a proper vocabulary of swear words.
  • You are engaged by realistic, non-formulaic stories.
  • You are comfortable with an unresolved ending and ambiguous messages.

This is not a magical showcase of Rowling’s impressive imagination. What it does highlight is her ability to draw characters with deft strokes, using their own thoughts, their actions, and the thoughts of other characters about them. The story practically studies the study of human nature.

Reading this book, I found I both liked and disliked almost every character presented. The majority of them I disliked at first impression, but grew to like as their strength and depth were revealed – and also their difficulties, which kindled my sympathy.

It’s like real life, for me at least: it’s not that I often actively dislike people, but I do tend to like people better once I get past initial impressions. Everyone is deeper, more prismatic, than they seem at first.

It’s also like real life in that how we are perceived not only differs with every person we know, it also does not match how we see ourselves. There will be people who like and admire us more than we realize, as well as people who really don’t like us, even if they don’t show it. Likewise, our actions – or lack thereof – sometimes affect people in ways we haven’t predicted or even considered. Sometimes we can think we are doing or saying one thing… and that thing is being regarded by someone else in an entirely different way.

(I have recently been reminded of this in my own life, in more ways than one. It is way easier than we realize to be and do things that become insincere or unkind by the time they reach someone else. That can be true even for people who prioritize niceness.)

We all keep secrets. We all do weird things sometimes without knowing quite why. We all have our vanities and insecurities. We all have motivations other people don’t guess at. We all occasionally have thoughts – about ourselves and others – that we’re glad no-one has to know about.

I think that’s what this book is about. (Not that it doesn’t have occasional heart-thudding moments, as well as poignant ones, and some very satisfying ones as well.)

So in my mind, the message isn’t actually ambiguous after all. It’s one of the oldest messages out there, told in a skilful and unexpected way: try not to judge people until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. If you’re judging (or even if you’re not), you’re being judged… so take care. After all, you never know when you might die of an aneurysm.

I think Jo wrote this novel for herself. For a chance to do something completely different, relinquish the fantastical and write something outwardly mundane, but with insidious profundity.

And I’d like to think she would be tickled that I’ve figured all this out.

jk-rowling 2012
J.K. Rowling, 2012

So, to sum up:

In case you haven’t already deducted, I’m with List B – I enjoyed it, found it fascinating, read it avidly. It doesn’t live in the cockles of my heart, the way Harry does, but I did kinda love some of the characters. And I’ll remember them for a long time.

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6 thoughts on “BANG Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

  1. Beth Lopez says:

    My husband shared an important message with me once which has helped me. “No matter how hard you try to be liked by everyone, someone out there is going to hate you.” And knowing that there are people who don’t like me, for whatever reason, frees me to just be myself and stop worrying constantly what others think of me. The most important question is, do I like me. And I can honestly say, yes, I’m the best person I can be. Other people’s judgements come from their own filters. I can’t change those.
    I guess JK came to those conclusions without benefit of my wise husband, eh?

    • diblog says:

      Beth, you have a wise husband indeed. And what a great thing, to be able to like ourselves and know we’re good. We all need to remember that – one of those continuous goals, perhaps?

  2. Beverley says:

    I’ve just read this post and it’s encouraged me to read J.K. Rowling’s new book. I had read many negative reviews….but from your review I think I’ll enjoy it. I too like books with multi-dimentional characters. Thanks!

  3. Skye says:

    Please excuse the late post, but I just finished today. At first I liked it. I liked how the characters seemed like ‘normal, nice” people, but they all had something going on under the surface. Then I didn’t really like it. I didn’t like how so many things under the surface were bad and, to me, unlikable. Finally, I’ve decided that I did like the book, even if I didn’t like all of the characters. But, of course, as you said, it is not Harry Potter, and that’s okay (I still have many HP options packed for distracting me during labour – both to listen to and to read).
    And for you – I anxiously await more book reviews!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Thanks for your point of view, Skye! I’m glad you ended up liking the book. There were a few characters I liked a lot, and even the ones I didn’t like much had certain redeeming qualities… but there were a few pretty awful ones. I can’t see myself re-reading it the way I love to re-read HP… but really, I never expected this book to be in the same league.

      Thanks for the reminder about book reviews; I’ll get right on it. ­čÖé

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