While flipping through books at a yard sale, I snagged J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, for a dime. A dime! Now I never read the Potter books. I tried, I really did. I couldn’t make it through the first chapter of the first book which is a shame because I hear it gets much better after that dreadful first chapter. I’ve been meaning to go back to it, but since I haven’t yet, The Casual Vacancy is my first foray into Rowling’s writing.
All my reviews contain spoilers.
J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is about a council member who dies and the gossipy little town where he lived fights over his chair all while dealing with their own personal problems. Rowling herself has been quoted saying it’s a book about responsibility, something about how much you’re responsible for your own happiness and how much you’re responsible for the disadvantaged.
But really it’s about gossip.
Let’s talk about the promotional quotes that are all over my paperback yard sale copy. The Time quote made the front of the novel, and it’s literally just a bunch of adjectives:
Then I open the cover, and there are nine more quotes on the inside. Nine. They really want you to know how great this book is. Flip to the inside of the back cover and, again, there are nine additional quotes from various journalists screaming about how wonderful it all is. Then on the very back you have three more thrown in for good measure. (Although the three on the back seem to be repeats of the shit you find on the inside.)
Of all those glowing reviews, four of them mention how funny this book is. (Which it’s not.) At least four of them mention how this book is such a page-turner. (Which it’s not.) And three of them mention it’s an insanely large cast of characters, which it is. The character count is ridiculous and that fact is the only part of these promotional quotes that rings true.
That many quotes stuffed on the cover of a single book is just asking for mockery, so I had to mention it. Onward to the stuff that counts: The inside.
There are too many of them. No wonder this book is so thick. And they’re all different shades of horrible. Some are a little less horrible than others. For instance, you come to hate Fats in the end but sort of like Krystal. Sort of. I get writing about characters with flaws. That’s real, that’s relatable. But these characters’ flaws are over the top. I mean if we’re, as moral human beings, all different shades of gray, we’re not black, we’re not white, just gray, then the people of this book are all huddled way toward the darker end of the spectrum, and not in a sexy bad guy kind of way, but in a gossipy unattractive, icky kind of way.
Barry was the closest thing to white out of all of them, and he died in the first chapter. (And did she really have to name the kindest character a name that rhymed with Harry? It seems if you have an -arry at the end of your name, Rowling instantly thinks good of you.)
This isn’t Marvel. I don’t expect or want superhero good guys and villain bad guys, but I do want some characters I can rally behind, and these people all more or less suck. I hardly cared about them. I didn’t like them. That’s a problem for a novel.
Out of laziness, and since I knew I wouldn’t be passing this book on, I scribbled my notes for this review in the margins of the book. On page 34, I made this note, “I can’t keep all these characters straight!” By page thirty-eight, I wrote, “OMG, do I hate this book!” But I bravely went forward.
From the outset, Rowling makes it pretty clear that everyone in this town is happy to gossip. Got it. She doesn’t need to bang us over the head with that fact, but she does anyway. Pages and pages and pages are spent showing how much glee these people get out of talking about one another.
Rowling insults all her characters’ appearances, commenting on acne, wrinkles, and size. She repeatedly describes one woman, one of the nicer characters in the book, as frumpy and overweight. I know that the things writers write aren’t necessarily a representation of how they think. (For example, if I write about a killer, that doesn’t make me a killer.) But there were several times where I wondered, “Is this what J.K. Rowling really thinks about people?” Here’s a wonderfully disgusting example:
A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.
I’m sorry, but I don’t see fat people and wonder about their penis like her book claims “most people” do. What a flipping weirdo.
I’m sure that’s supposed to be one of the funnies of the book, but it wasn’t funny, and it, like many other insults she hurtled at her characters, just made me think that when Rowling people watches, she’s privately fat bashing people. Or wrinkle bashing. Or putting down people’s clothes and hairstyles. I’d hate to be inside her head all day.
I would guess Rowling put some care into mapping out her little town of Pagford, but it bored the hell out of me hearing about the streets and crap. I wrote in one margin of my copy after the millionth street mention, “OMG. Am I supposed to care about every street? I care about the streets about as much as I do the people.” Which is true, because I really never cared about the people.
This story is told in omniscient third person. You’re privy to everyone’s, well at least everyone who’s important, thoughts. Yes, it does head hop, but Rowling manages this well. Once I knew all the characters (a third of the way into the book?) I was never confused about who she was following even when she changed perspectives around the dinner table. However, the narrator (Rowling) does seem to have some very clear opinions about the people we’re following. I always knew what I was supposed to think of the characters, and I was also spoon fed their emotions.
Here’s an example:
Ruth hovered around him, dismayed, affectionate and tearful.
You’re just going to list all her emotions, huh?
There had been a certain complacency about the way she had treated him since; a briskness, a sense of renewed expectation.
She’s always telling us how the characters are. She never lets us come to our own conclusions.
New writers are encouraged by editors and the writing community not to use dialect although some claim it’s allowable if you have an excellent ear. In general, though, it makes dialogue hard to read, and therefore takes one out of the story.
Rowling uses it for one of her main characters, Krystal, throughout the book.
“Your ‘usband said sumthin’ abou’ Mister Fairbrother, right, and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, right, so Nikki tole me, and couldn’t fucking -”
Krystal is from the Fields, a disadvantaged and poverty stricken area of town. Another character, who wasn’t important and therefore never given a name talks in a similar manner.
“That thing you said you migh’ be int’rested in,” he mumbled, when he had followed Simon into the office, and Simon had closed the door, “I cud do it for yeh Wednesday, if yeh still fancied it.”
I gather he’s also supposed to be an uneducated, poor type since he’s selling stolen good, is familiar with the Fields, and talks like Krystal. So basically poor people don’t talk good – is that what Rowling’s trying to tell me by making me sound out all this bullshit? It’s annoying. It does take me out of the story, and I hate it.
ANNOYING BEATS AND IRRITATING WORDS
Sometimes Rowling plugged in sentences to show what the characters were doing while they were talking, and some of those sentences were pointless and kind of stupid like the following:
Samantha took a clumsy mouthful of coffee; it trickled from the corners of her mouth down the sides of her chin, and she mopped her face and chest with her sleeve.
Okay, that shows her surprise about what is being said, but it’s kind of annoying that I have to visualize all this coffee all over her face just for the sake of a beat.
She finished her toast and cleared away her breakfast things, mentally refining the story she planned to tell her assistant.
Why do I care if she finished her toast?
…said Ruth, still a little breathless as she tweaked off her gloves finger by finger, unwinding her scarf and unbuttoning her coat.
It just seems like a lot. They’re doing a lot of little things that I don’t care about. Beats are important, but not this important. I’m willing to let these things go though. It might be my own personal annoyance. Other people maybe like tons of superfluous, pointless detail to help them visualize a scene.
But here’s one I really hated:
“How’s Simon? How are the boys?” asked Shirley, when Ruth had wiped down the table, and they had decanted the contents of their trays and sat facing each other, ready to chat.
* Sigh * Okay, so you tell me a bit of dialogue and then tell me this sentence happened after they had wiped a table. “Decanted” their trays (is that really the best word choice here?), and then sat facing each other. It’s impossible to get lost in this writing! Way too much explanation after the fact. Just say the dialogue. My imagination will do the rest.
She also uses a lot of action verbs, which is awesome and something new writers are always told to do, but sometimes there’s so much slamming and stomping that every little movement starts to seem exaggerated and over dramatic.
Samantha crashed the lid of the bread bin and rammed four pieces of bread into the slots.
I can almost see Rowling opening the thesaurus, “Hm, what’s another word for slam, oh, crashed. Good. Good.”
Other examples of exaggerated movement:
Gaia pushed past, slammed the door behind her and rammed the lock home.
… who did not respond, but stormed down the hall, her bag bouncing off the walls, and slammed the front door behind her.
Really? Her bag bounced off the walls?
On another note, some parts are a little adjective heavy.
The rain had passed off at last, and the pale spring sun shone brightly on the fish-scale dirt on the school-bus windows as it jerked and lurched through the narrow streets of Pagford.
I hate J.K. Rowling’s similes.
The things he had not said to her were his talisman and safeguard; he strung them together in his mind and checked them off like beads on a rosary.
So the things he didn’t say are a rosary, a talisman, and a safeguard. Thank you for that, Rowling, for completely taking me out of the story making me visualize things like rosaries to represent things that are not said! I’m totally into the story now.
Oh, here’s a good one:
Parminder’s rage crashed over her like a tidal wave, dragging Sukhvinder with it, so that she was unable to find her feet or right herself.
The girl’s sitting down. That’s got to be one of the dumbest similes ever. I’m supposed to picture her falling over from a tidal wave because her mom’s mad at her?
On another note, it wasn’t all bad. There were some very good sentences in J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I particularly liked this one, for instance:
He liked to see inanimate objects react to her body; liked to see the bus seat give a little as she dropped her weight into it, and that copper-gold mass of hair curve against the steel bar at the top.
Probably my favorite line:
It was strange how your brain could know what your heart refused to accept.
It was used in reference to Samantha’s business going under, but it can be used for so much more than that. There were a few others that I forgot to tag, but let’s just say not every sentence was cringe worthy.
Partway through the book, Rowling starts doing this weird thing with parenthesis. When she wants to flash back to something, she’ll put parenthesis around what could be half a page or more. At first, I believed there was some sort of typo going on because there were stray ) here and there. I thought, “Fuck who edited this? All these random parenthesis everywhere.” Then, it happened enough, that I paid closer attention and realized it was purposely around paragraphs and paragraphs of text. Why, Rowling? Why? Just go into flashback, you don’t need to add parenthesis. It again just takes me further out of the story and emphasizes that it’s an aside. She continues to do this weird parenthesis thing for the entire book.
SHOCK THAT BORES
I’ve read and watched some very shocking things in my lifetime, but these things are always ruined for me when it becomes apparent that events are happening purely for the shock value. Chuck Palahniuk, while one of my fave authors, makes me roll my eyes at times when it becomes too obvious that he’s just trying to disgust. It’s not about character or plot, it’s just to make you wrinkle your nose and look away. (But at least he does it in a novel, entertaining way.)
Lots of TV shows have done the same in the past. Off the top of my head, that old plastic surgery show Nip/Tuck is a clear example of throwing one shock in after another. This one cheats. That one’s bulimic. This one turns lesbian. That one joins the KKK. It became so ridiculous it was unwatchable.
That’s kind of how I feel about The Casual Vacancy, only the shocks she throws at you are not told in a unique way whatsoever. Her shock list includes: extreme poverty, gossip, OCD, perfectionism, sex, scars, erections, porn, rape, racism, teenage cutting, child abuse, child neglect, sexual abuse, bullying, gluttony, adultery, drinking, drug use, suicide – what have I left out? I’d forgive this long list of sins if they were presented in new, unusual ways, but she shows these things by giving the most basic, gratuitous descriptions possible.
Porn, pot, cutting, bullying – all her teenage characters are cliché. How do you, personally, visualize a depressed teen cutting herself and for what reasons would you think a teen would do such a thing? I guarantee you the thing that comes off the top of your head is exactly what Rowling wrote. Teen bullied by peers. Too many pressures from parents. Cuts arm in dark corner of bedroom. Criss-crossed scars. Oh, blah. Does realistic have to mean boring? If you’re going to throw chunks and more chunks of crap at me for mere shock value, at least present it in an original way.
DATING THE WORK
When was Rihanna‘s song Umbrella popular? I guess around the time this book was written. Definitely not when I picked it up. Amateur writers like myself are told not to stick shit in their books that could date it. Rowling doesn’t seem to care. She references Umbrella throughout the story and then sticks in references to Johnny Depp and Jennifer Aniston. Blech. I wish she hadn’t. Not only are her references mainstream and pop-ish, but they’re very American.
One of the things I liked about J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was that it wasn’t set in America. I’m a member of many, many writers’ forums and frequently people from countries other than America start threads asking if their American characters would do this, that, or the other. (And no, if you’re wondering if your American character would drink tea six times a day, just stop. No. Why are you even asking that! The answer is no. No dammit! I don’t even know anyone who owns a legit tea kettle!)
These threads always confound me, and I want to say, “Why don’t you write about people from your own country?” But I never say that because it sounds rude, and a writer can write about whatever the hell he or she wants. I surely don’t want anyone telling me what I can and can’t write about.
But it does seem like an inordinate amount of people around the world want to write about Americans, like you’re all obsessed or something! I get that a lot of entertainment comes out of America, but that doesn’t mean you have to write about the same characters you’re so often forced to read about. Your country is special. Your culture is special. And you know about it. You don’t have to make weird threads in writing forums asking about small culture differences because you’ve never been to America in your life but your entire story is set there.
Why can’t your characters be from your own country? I’d read it. I’d be interested in reading about a cultural setting that’s new to me. I’d enjoy that. But everyone seems to jump on the American bandwagon. Even that stupid Fifty Shades of Grey book was set in America despite the author being from London and she received a lot of criticism for the choice since so much of what she wrote sounded very, very British. It was distracting and obvious, and – the freaking tea! (I didn’t actually read the books in their entirety. I started one and stopped. I do have standards people.)
So with all that being said, I was pleased that Rowling wrote a story set in England. I wish more authors from countries other than my own would embrace what’s around them. I liked reading about the biscuits, the teas, the puddings, and the, the cows. (Seriously characters insulted each other often by calling each other cows. It was weird. Is that a British thing? I don’t even know.) I like British differences in words. Cigarettes are fags and being drunk is being pissed. That’s just good old fashioned fun. But then she pulls lyrics from Umbrella … Couldn’t she have referenced some form of British entertainment? I at least wouldn’t have noticed that it was dated then because I wouldn’t have had any idea what she was referencing.
POT DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT
I’m going to assume Rowling’s been high before because I don’t want to think she wrote this without real world experience to back up her assertions. However … maybe she forgot what it was actually like? Weed can do that to you.
So maybe she then went online and read something about the instantaneous effects of pot use and decided to go with that. Her characters become way too high and way too drunk way too fast. I found her marijuana scenes laughable.
There’s this paragraph:
Andrew inhaled and felt the power of the drug radiate out from his lungs, unwinding and loosening him. Another drag, and he thought that it was like having your mind shaken out like a duvet, so that it resettled without creases, so that everything became smooth and simple and easy and good.
Tee-hee. Are you laughing right now? Because I am. I wrote comments in my margins such as “What the hell are they smoking? One inhale and you instantly unwind and loosen? No, you’re silly Rowling.” It takes at least a few minutes, peaks later than that.
I was going to make fun of these scenes at length, but then I realized, hey, maybe I’ve been smoking the wrong stuff. Pot definitely effects everyone differently, and different strains can have different effects, then you add in nicotine like these boys and there are additional effects, so I’ll just let it go … I did get a good laugh out of it though. Her pot scenes are the funniest parts of the whole book but for all the wrong reasons.
Which the book is not funny. This novel has been billed as a black comedy, or, as Rowling prefers to call it, a comic tragedy, but it’s not funny at all. I found zero wit here. I can easily pinpoint the spots where it was supposed to be funny, but it wasn’t at all funny to me, just kind of sad.
The ending was unexpected for me and that’s a wonderful thing. Your reader shouldn’t know what’s going to happen in the end when they haven’t even reached the middle. Honestly, with as much as the book talked about Andrew’s EpiPen, I expected Andrew to die of his peanut allergy giving Fats an opportunity to relate to his Dad’s plight of having a friend die. That didn’t happen at all. I didn’t see Howard’s heart attack or his affair coming. I didn’t see Shirley’s actions coming. I didn’t see Robbie’s death coming.
Now, with that said, I did see there was going to be a problem as soon as Krystal sat Robbie on that bench next to a river with his chips and chocolate and no drink. The drowning was perfectly set up, and I think the only people in the world who didn’t see that coming were those dimwits who passed the solitary child by the river. And that brings me to:
Parts of The Casual Vacancy plot seemed so contrived and forced. Three different kids used the internet to secretly get back at their parents? A bunch of people passed by the three-year-old near the river and ignored him? None of this is realistic.
Good Lord that was depressing. That may be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. I’d say J.K. Rowling has keen insight into negative human behavior, but I’m not a big fan of her storytelling, at least not in this one novel of hers that I’ve read.
How did someone who writes adventures in wizardry go to writing the hum drums of a tiny town of nosy people? I get that she wanted to write something grown-up, but does grown-up have to equal boring? G.R.R. Martin’s books are grown-up but stuff still happens in them. I guess Rowling wanted something closer to reality after writing fantasy for so long, but she seems to miss the point of reading. We read because we’re sick of reality. We want a little escapism. It doesn’t have to be fantasy, but if a council member had a heart attack in my own town, I wouldn’t care. So why should I care about it in your fictional town? You don’t give me any reason to. Your characters are all so unlikable. They’re worst than reality.
I did like how the Mollison’s got what they deserved in the end. That chapter where Shirley reads the last post by The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother brought me great pleasure. I experienced as much pleasure out of her misery as she got out of other people’s, which does not make me feel like a very good person. But that’s the odd thing about this novel. You’re supposed to loathe these people for their gossipy ways, but at the same time be as thrilled as they are about the gossip, forcing you to be a hypocrite. And if you’re not thrilled by the gossip, which most the time I wasn’t, then you sit there bored by the book and these stupid, horrible people. But yeah, the Shirley thing at the end was awesome, and her reaction even better.
Like I said, the characters are unlikable, but they do become tolerable over time, when you know more about them. In the end, I think Tessa seemed okay. Andrew and Kay aren’t too bad and neither is Samantha, who sort of redeems herself in the end with her intentions. And of course, Sukhvinder comes out something of a hero. So there is some pleasurable resolution in the super melancholy, death filled ending, but overall the book was uber depressing.
I can’t imagine anyone calling this their favorite book or even reading it a second time. Personally, I’m excited that I finally finished this review so that I can pitch the book and never think about it again.
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