As soon as I heard this book was coming out I was always going to review it and I was always going to start that review by saying I would forget about Harry Potter and review it without the boy wizard in mind.
Except, I don’t need to. I don’t need to forget that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in order to give this book a fair review because in all honesty (and let’s be honest, relief) this novel stands on its own two feet.
I know that a lot of people aren’t clear on the details of the book because not much was released until recently but it truly is an adult novel. It features drugs, rape, domestic abuse, prostitution, self-harming, racism, mental illness and is also full to the brim of arrogant and spiteful characters.
It’s set in the idyllic location of Pagford, nestled in the countryside overlooked by a ruined abbey and bordered by a river. It neighbours Yarvil which all the teenagers love and the elderly dislike. It starts with the death of Pagford Parish councillor Barry Fairbrother whose untimely demise leaves a gaping hole in the small town, and whether the locals know it or not, they are being drawn into the chaos that resides within.
It seems that everyone turns against everyone and fragile alliances are made in the face of looming uncertainty. Drawn into the struggle, whether willingly or kicking and screaming, were the Mollisons, Gaia and Kay Bawden, the Jawandas, the Prices, The Walls and most of all the Weedons. Then there’s Gavin Hughes and the Fairbrothers who flit around on the outskirts. The thing about all of them, though, is that none of them are completely likable and most of them are not easy to hate. Each character has their own grey area, there is room to like them, just understand them or feel nothing for them at all. They all have their flaws, which is what I think this book is quick to point out, and over time their redeeming features are revealed. Well, for most if them anyway.
The Casual Vacancy is a book about people, which is a testament to J.K. Rowling’s writing skills because usually I don’t like reading about people. I like reading about fantastical stories in which people do great things on an epic scale. Where they achieve the impossible and anything can happen. And now, The Casual Vacancy is one of just two books about people that I have thoroughly enjoyed (the other being The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
It’s because Rowling has captured the world in Pagford perfectly. She understands the trouble that happens everywhere, the problems that are so universally wide and has placed them masterfully in Pagford. She understands that, on some level, everyone has their own problems. She knows all about human reaction and how one event can have such a varied effect on people.
Some of the themes were in Harry Potter too. Death, for example. It’s well-known that Rowling lost her mum before Harry Potter was published. That loss has had a profound effect on her work since then and shadows everything she writes. Harry Potter started with an orphan and The Casual Vacancy started with the death of Barry Fairbrother and throughout both tales it is the prevalent theme.
Yet the most interesting thing is the emotion Rowling gets you to feel. She gets you to sympathise with people you would never want to hang around with in real life. The prime example of this being Krystal Weedon. If she were in my school and in my class I would do my best to avoid her. Probably due to a bit of ignorance but also out of fear. I avoided a lot of people in school because of that latter reason, they were confrontational and argumentative, like Krystal. I love that Rowling got me sympathising with someone like her because it really highlights that some people can’t help the situation they’re in.
Despite the squalor that Krystal lived in she tried her best to make it better for both her and her brother, Robbie. Although many people looked down on her and treated her like dirt on their shoe, she still had some good in her, some pride. In fact, it was the more well-off characters that were easy to dislike. Some of them are arrogant and selfish and blinded by their ignorance, they think they’re right and we think they’re wrong but with the structure of the book it is sometimes difficult to tell who is in the right and who is in the wrong. And this is something I cherish from the novel because, after all, isn’t that what life is like?
In our own little world don’t we complain about others and fail to take into consideration their situation. Don’t we revel in our opinions and find it difficult to accept others? Behind closed doors people have a different face to the one they show the real world, and this is what Rowling has displayed perfectly, this is what makes the story so compelling and this is what makes the ending emotional. You’re sad for people, angry at others and pleased as well. It’s strange how much emotion is packed into the end and I think that’s because someone’s happy ending comes at the expense of someone else, and they’re both likeable characters.
Do not expect to find Harry Potter here. This is a gritty tale of real life written by a person who has experienced the extremes of poverty and riches, depression and happiness. It’s a great book by a great author with a great story. I highly recommend this book and not just because it was written by J.K. Rowling.