Behind Closed Doors; ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling [2012]

Hi, my name is Alice, and I am a Syltherin; I know this to be accurate as Pottermore told me so.Well, as accurate as a series of questions on a children’s website can get. My sisters are also Slytherin, which I find hilarious as we all took the test months apart from each other; we are practically Bellatrix, Andromeda and Narcissa (without the evil). The Harry Potter novels were a significant part of my youth and I loved every single one of them; Rowling’s characterisation is inventive, her plot ingenious, and when I have children they will be reading Harry Potter right along side Little Women, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and a plethora of other classics.

It does feels wrong to begin this blog talking about J.K. Rowling’s previous work, as by writing the Casual Vacancy she is attempting to prove herself as a writer of fiction for any age, however, without explaining how much I love Harry Potter I cannot explain why The Casual Vacancy was not quite up to par.

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? Synopsis from GoodReads

In The Casual Vacancy Rowling has once again demonstrated her clear talent for characterisation and intricate plot detail, however, the writing style I was so able to forgive in her children’s literature was a problem I could not overcome in this, her novel for adults.

The success of Harry Potter lay in Harry himself; the identifiable character. The Casual Vacancy has the same number of fantastic characters, but where in Harry Potter we had a moral compass and sympathetic hero, in The Casual Vacancy we do not. Essentially there could not be such a hero in The Casual Vacancy, as it is an adult book there must be a believable element of realism. Part of the genius of The Casual Vacancy is that as a reader you really do not know who you should be aligning with, there are no clear good or bad characters, and in this Rowling has successfully taken the leap from young fiction to adult. While the lack of a ‘Harry’ is detrimental to the novel, it is only in the sense that it appears to have made it harder for Rowling to keep The Casual Vacancy pivoted, and thus, continually interesting.

In her characterisation and plot development Rowling once again amazed me. Even at my most disappointed Rowling managed to pull me back with her morally inconsistent, emotionally fluctuating and most importantly, human, characters. There are those you loathe, those you recognise, those you love and those you want to crawl inside the pages to help. There were only three characters I liked consistently throughout The Casual Vacancy, Kay Bawden the social worker, Andrew Price the beaten son, and Sukhvinder Jawanda the social misfit (even within her own family). While I did not consistently enjoy the other characters this was only due to their actions, not any failure on Rowling’s part.

Rowling tackles serious social issues in The Casual Vacancy in a refreshingly blunt manner; not trying to solve these issues, but instead bringing them to the table to be discussed and acknowledged. This is demonstrated in her use of local government, and the ease in which people will palm off issues they do not understand or are unwilling to solve themselves. Poverty, education, rape, drug abuse, racism, child abuse, self-harm and suicide are just some of the social discomfort Rowling addresses, and not once did I feel preached to.

It is with discomfort that after all this wonder; plot, characters and subject matter, that The Casual Vacancy could be so badly written. When J.K. Rowling said she would be writing a book for adults I had hoped her prose would develop for a more advanced audience, however, her writing style still has tones of the young adult audience she was previously targeting. This was The Casual Vacancy’s major failing; Rowling’s style was perfect for when I was younger, growing up with Potter, but I am older now and my reading habits have changed; Rowling has not changed with me.

2 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors; ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling [2012]

  1. There’s two sides to the debate, really. There’s not talking about HP and taking this book at face value, as Rowling seems to hope, and then there’s applying context to the discussion which is surely what we’re “supposed” to do. I think considering you’ve explained how you came to the book, and that you did straight off makes your review all the better.

    I like how you’ve signed off, you’ve summed the problems up really well in that one sentence.


  2. Great review! And a pity the book wasn’t quite to your taste. It sounds to me there are too many characters and no one to identify with.

    I bought the book this weekend, as I read enough positive reviews to give it a go. I bought it on that basis and on the fact that it’s a bit of a hype. I’m not a Potter fan so I won’t compare the book to those books but I like how you did do just that.


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