The Casual Vacancy

Image of The Casual Vacancy
Release Date: 
September 27, 2012
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

“. . . isn’t that the point of literature, of art: to reveal universal truths and grab your emotions by the throat and shake them? Yep . . . But it doesn’t always make for feel-good recreational reading.”

The Casual Vacancy is worth reading if only for the writing. Open it to page one, and the village of Pagford springs to life within the first few sentences. Every character, upon introduction, is instantly recognizable as oneself or a person one knows, getting richer and deeper and more complex—as do all their relationships.

The story advances steadily and subtly. The language is crystal clear and seamless. The images are vivid. Real life on the macro scale is captured in the micro scale of an English village and its dramas, in classic, award-worthy literary style.

Five hundred pages of delicious, evocative prose.

Yet: Buyer beware.

There is not one ray of sunshine in The Casual Vacancy. Okay, there are a few milky glimmerings at the end and occasional veiled zingers raise a sardonic smile but do not add levity.

The Casual Vacancy is grim, grim, grim: an unrelenting exposé of humanity’s lesser qualities. If you like “dark” fiction, then this book is for you.

The Harry Potter series, for which Ms. Rowling is best known, also is dark—in fact, those books have often been criticized for that attribute—but they are leavened by light in that they focus on good versus evil—and good ultimately wins. Or at least comes out a step ahead. The main characters in the Harry troupe are loving and supportive and courageous. The stories contain adventure, creativity, and fun.

In The Casual Vacancy, however, there’s no hero, no quest, no fun, no fantasy. Just unrelenting reality in which most people are small-minded—petty, selfish, competitive and territorial, not particularly intelligent or creative, weak, phony, helpless, insecure—and so on, ad nauseum.

We see all our secret thoughts and the phoniness of our façades as we struggle through civilized life, one step above the raging beasts within us.

A hundred pages pass before a character emerges to cheer for. Meanwhile, all elements of village life are in some state of war. Marriages and courtships are bitter or hollowly lustful; characters who show signs of love or caring are battered into defeat. The simplest actions and conversations seem to have an ulterior motive; smiling faces mask lies. If Ms. Rowling aimed to reveal the ugly truth behind benign or beautiful appearances, she succeeded.

Her writing is frank sometimes to the point of embarrassment, and some of her best images are grotesque. In so many ways large and small, she makes the reader squirm.

But isn’t that the point of literature, of art: to reveal universal truths and grab your emotions by the throat and shake them?

Yep, sure is. But it doesn’t always make for feel-good recreational reading.

The characters who count in this weighty novel are either dead at the beginning or die at the end. Their passing provokes the changes recounted so uncomfortably through the story.

So if you’re looking for a delightful escape, stick with Harry Potter. But if you’re looking for masterful storytelling and writing, stick with J. K. Rowling no matter what she composes. They didn’t award her an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for nothing.