I can’t believe I’m writing a review of The Casual Vacancy. Those of you who read this blog know that I only review books that I love, books that I would recommend to others, and The Casual Vacancy doesn’t really fall into either category. It is a harsh book, and I often put it aside because the characters were difficult and made me very uncomfortable. But this seems to be what Rowling was going for, so I have to commend her on pulling that bit off spectacularly.
Books are personal for me. Whether or not I like a book has everything to do with me and nothing to do with the writer. Thus, I hate books that are well done and may love some books which could have been improved with a little more editing. But I do believe one of the best tests of a great book is whether or not the author has accomplished what he or she set out to do. As a writer, I know how difficult this is. Sometimes I have a wonderful idea that I am so afraid of screwing up. I fear taking this idea and not being able to do it justice, to write it the way I see it all played out in my head. I read a book once, which shall remain nameless, that I hated. The premise was cool, but the author did not make good on her promise. The plot was shoddy and the characters were two-dimensional. There was no motivation for anything they did, and I did not buy into their story. Rowling, however, has taken a difficult story and accomplished what she set out to do, and I believe that is the mark of a great author.
The Casual Vacancy is a challenging book. While the writing is good, the language is harsh and the characters are hateful. I disliked most of the characters (and truly hated some of them), but that was because they were so real and honest. They got right in your face and shouted their flaws. They were not easy for the reader to love or root for. This is also difficult when you are a writer. You are told that, even if your character is unlovable, the reader must sympathize with them in some way. This was not the case for me with the characters is The Casual Vacancy, but yet, for some reason, I couldn’t give up on their story.
This book is about a town and its inhabitants. It begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, who is on the parish council. But it’s not a mystery as many have assumed. It is a character study. The book starts a little slow, as there is a bit of info dump at the beginning, and since it is told in third person omniscient, it was extremely difficult to keep up with all the characters. But once I got well into the book, I was amazed at the intricate workings of each person’s story and how it connected them to the other characters. I won’t give away the ending, but how everything finally comes together in the climax is incredible.
This is not a book I would recommend for everyone. It is not entertaining, nor is it an escape from reality. It is reality – it is gritty and in your face. It made me uncomfortable, which I believe was its intention. But it stayed with me. It was a hard book to get through, not because the writing was bad or the characters were flat, but because they weren’t. The characters were so real they made me cringe. And somehow Rowling made me feel for the characters at the end of the story, even if I didn’t like them.
So maybe I don’t love this book, but I respect it, both for what it is and what it isn’t. There isn’t any magic, but there is brokenness and the possibility of redemption, no matter how remote or unlikely. And realistically, that’s what life is – the possibility of recovering from our mistakes or allowing them to destroy us completely.