Well. That definitely wasn’t a Harry Potter book.
After 7 books (8 movies) of wizardry and witches, magic and mischief, and dragons and, umm, other fantastic creatures, J.K. Rowling has moved on. This is her first post-Potter book, and if you were expecting anything remotely like Harry Potter, you’re in for a disappointment – but a surprisingly pleasant one.
The Casual Vacancy is, unlike the Harry Potter series, completely grounded in reality. No magic, no dragon, no fantastic creatures, no big hero to save the day from the dastardly villain, and – perhaps most importantly – no clear-cut line between good guys and bad guys.
So, what is this book about? Ostensibly, it’s about a small rural English village and the conflict over whether or not to keep the council estates – what we here in the US would call “the projects” – as part of the town or dump it on the neighboring village and alleviate themselves of a financial and social burden. It’s about replacing a leading member of the village council after his sudden demise, about the political and social fight to take his place. But it’s also about the oft-intrusive intimacy of small towns and the secret lives people manage to lead even when faced with each other every single day. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it’s also about how the middle- and upper-classes view the poor, the poverty-stricken, the unfortunates.
That said. . .most of all, at its core, at its heart, The Casual Vacancy is about the death of compassion.
That death happens in the first few pages; everything beyond that is fallout woven into the narrative of the impending council election and decision of what to do with the council estates. And it is well worth the read.
J.K. Rowling’s characterization is excellent. One can’t help but come to know the residents of Pagford as intimately as if one actually lived there. . .moreso, in fact, for her use of a third-person-omniscient perspective gives the reader insights into all the hidden secrets and thoughts of every resident chronicled. The characterization is, in my opinion, the best part of the book; it’s what makes one care enough, or at least want to see some come-uppance enough, to read through all the way to the end. Even the largely unlikable characters are fleshed out well enough to keep one deeply engrossed in their saga. At times, it’s even a very painful read, as major characters suffer setbacks and tragedies.
On top of that, reading this gave me the inspiration to write a story of my own, which hopefully someone will review on this site one day. 🙂
So why not 5 stars? The pacing is a little slow, and the first half of the book was a bit of a slog. It took me two weeks to get through that, but once I did, I finished the rest in two days.
The Casual Vacancy is a great book; a well-written journey through the various mindsets of first-world society-at-large in a quite fitting microcosm with a very, very bittersweet, eye-moistening ending, a good read for anyone who likes a well-crafted story with complex, interesting, human characters.
Oh, and this book is definitely not for kids.
Go read it.