Book Review: The Casual Vacancy
OverviewGenre: Literary Fiction
Pros:It's an entertaining and often funny read.
Cons:There are important points to be made here, but unfortunately they get lost in a sea of stereotypes.
J.K. Rowling’s first book for grown-ups has a promising premise, but is let down by weak characterisation and a reliance on stock characters. Claire reviews.
How do you follow the best-selling series of books of all time? And why do you bother? If you’re JK Rowling, the uber-successful brain behind the Harry Potter series, you certainly don’t do it for the money. But having shot almost instantly to the type of fame most writers only ever dream of, Rowling clearly has her pick of publishing contracts and the freedom to spread her literary wings a bit, and her first post-Potter venture has been eagerly anticipated ever since Harry and his friends finally put away their wands.
Comparisons with her earlier books are fairly pointless; The Casual Vacancy is (for the most part) a comic novel, aimed squarely at adults, and set very much in the real world. It concerns the residents of a small village in England, who are shaken up when a member of the community dies suddenly, leaving a much-sought-after vacancy on the parish council. Various pretenders to this throne emerge, as do some long-hidden secrets about the lives of the citizens of Pagford.
We know that Rowling can write, and the book is an easy and generally enjoyable read. The problem is in her characterisation, which is so overwhelmingly stereotype-ridden that’s it’s hard to work out if this was a deliberate ploy or not. The lecherous old head of the council; the embittered trophy wife who chases after younger men; the bullied teenager who cuts herself to ease the pain – these are all stock characters, and a town entirely filled with stock characters doesn’t quite ring true. Added to this is the fact that the vast majority of them are just completely unlikeable. Misunderstood authors are fond of bleating that you don’t have to like the protagonist of a novel to enjoy it, but you do need to believe in him or her as a realistic figure, and most real-life characters are a lot more nuanced than the ones who inhabit Rowling’s fictional village. She’s more successful when it comes to fleshing out Krystal, the hugely troubled teenager who lives in The Fields, the area of council housing near Pagford that is the trigger from which much of the conflict within the story arises. Krystal manages to be both utterly obnoxious and heartbreakingly sympathetic at the same time, and her story is likely to be the only one the reader truly invests in.
As Rowling herself has stated, this book is about responsibility, and what we owe to each other as citizens of the same small patch of earth. But those points might have more impact if they were set in a world that was just a bit more recognisable as the one we live in.