Book review: JK Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

Published in SIN News, 15st October 2012

Although the publication of JK Rowling’s first adult novel wasn’t accompanied by a queue of costumed fans forming around the bookstore corner in anticipation of a midnight release, there was a sense of fizzling excitement and expectation to 27 September, the launch of The Casual Vacancy. It has been a whole five years since the final instalment of the Harry Potter series was released. Followers were itching to get their noses into this latest offering, even if it was just because Rowling’s name is sprawled across the cover. Many have been left disappointed by the absence of the spark of magic that made Harry Potter so special.
However, on leaving those expectations behind, readers could be surprised at the legacy it could leave on their psyche, being as it is of a different kind than the boy wizard’s.

A grimy, realistic portrait of a seemingly idyllic town, the Casual Vacancy is at its heart a character study and social criticism of the bigotry and self-interest of the British middle classes. Rowling’s narrative voice transitions seamlessly from one character to another.

Although it is difficult to differentiate between the Gavins and the Simons in the opening sequences of the novel, each character leaves a mark on the reader as they make their own contributions to the tightly developing plot. It is with glum abandon that one comes to realise that there is a part of someone they recognise in every one of these figures, and that they are all pitiful yet monstrous in their individual ways.

For the first hundred pages or so, I stopped myself occasionally to admire the stamp of Rowling’s unmistakable writing. Her voice, tone and intended audience may have changed, as is evident in the sex scenes and swear words she must have been holding back since she started writing Philosopher’s Stone in 1990, but it is clear that she placed as much passion into the town of Pagford as she dedicated to the stories of Hogwarts. By the halfway mark I was veritably sucked into the new world of the Fields and the Parish Council, and grieving along with the characters for the honest Barry Fairweather.

The Casual Vacancy is a darkly comical venture that is entrancing to its tragic end.  When questioned how she will gauge whether the book is a success or a failure, JK Rowling responded that she’ll judge it by speaking to the readers.

This is one reader who is very satisfied.


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