I really, really wanted to like this book. I love the Harry Potter series, and here’s the thing: I also really like English village stories, social satire and political intrigue. I started reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy knowing it would be nothing like Harry Potter, and determined to read it on its own merits. Reviews of this book generally seem to fall into two categories: it sucks because it lacks the magic of Harry Potter, or it’s obviously not Harry Potter (duh!) and it’s absolutely amazing!
In my defence, I did give this book a fair chance — several, in fact. I started and stopped reading it several times over the past couple of months, trying to see if I’d enjoy it more in a different mood. Unfortunately, about halfway through, I admitted defeat. I didn’t enjoy this book, and quite frankly, I didn’t want to waste any more of my time trying to get through it. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — opinions on it are fairly evenly split, which tells me you’ll either love the book or hate it, and it’s likely a matter of personal preference.
In the interest of fairness, whenever a publisher sends me a book, I make it a point to finish it before posting a review, just in case something happens in the last few pages that changes my opinion of the book. In this case, however, as I said, I didn’t want to keep trying anymore, and so, in case the book suddenly becomes much more to my taste at the halfway point, my apologies. Consider this a review of only the first half.
The reason I couldn’t get into Casual Vacancy is that it lacked the magic of Harry Potter. And by magic, I don’t mean wands and wizards, but rather narrative magic. Harry Potter cast a spell over the reader, and made me want to keep turning the page. It was compelling storytelling, with characters you cared about, and with a few exceptions, Casual Vacancy fell flat.
Rowling’s writing is as solid as ever, with a touch of Austen-like wry humour in her tone. Take the opening sentences for example:
Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner. […] However, his wife had been a little stiff and uncommunicative over lunch, and Barry deduced that his anniversary card had not mitigated the crime of shutting himself away in the study all morning. [p.3]
So far, so wordy, but the contrast between the formal “mitigation” and the trivial “anniversary card” is a bit of a convivial smirk at the reader, setting the tone of subtlety and irony that Rowling attempts throughout.
Rowling focuses on the mundane in this book. The tale of a small town political battle is told with endless minutiae of daily life. It’s as if Rowling wanted to prove how ordinary and un-magical she could write, and ends up being a bore.
I think part of the problem is that there’s a huge cast of characters, with little to differentiate them. They’re mostly greedy and power hungry, which could make for some wonderful gritty storytelling, or sharp, biting satire. Rowling’s writing lacks the edge to pull it off, and instead merely points them out to us, as though presenting a series of generic bad people one after another after another ad nauseum.
There are moments of brilliance. I love the scene where a woman decides to wear a sari to Barry Fairbrother’s funeral — even though her neighbours will disapprove, it’s like an inside joke between her and Barry. Great moment, touching, yet with a rousing touch of defiance against social conventions. My favourite, however, is Sukhvinder’s story. A teenage girl who unfortunately has facial hair, she is bullied in school (by a boy I actually loathed in the few chapters I’d read of him) and called a hermaphrodite, a hairy ape and so on. In probably the best scene from what I’ve read, Rowling writes how Sukhvinder hides in her room, with her mother and sisters talking in the background, and cuts herself. It’s taut, tense and powerful, and I wish the rest of the book had that same power.
Unfortunately, the story of the adult characters, which is the focus of the book, is much less compelling, much more meandering. I was bored; I couldn’t care less; I gave up.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.