Recently, I finished reading Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling, her first adult novel. I can honestly say it was not what I expected.
Warning: Possible spoilers below the cut.
Like many people, I grew up reading Harry Potter, huddled under the covers, reading by lamplight into the wee hours, waiting years for the next book to be released, and I’ve grown to be very familiar with JKR’s style of writing.
Casual Vacancy is nothing like Harry Potter except perhaps in writing style. The world is much greyer than the usual black-and-white landscape that Harry and friends traversed for seven books.
Right off the bat, this might rub some people the wrong way. At first, I found some of the language jarring, a nice little shake out of the Harry Potter tree I’d been living in for so long. The characters vary between somewhat likeable, such as Andrew Price, the sixteen year old son of an abusive, paranoid man to Howard Mollison, who first comes off as a loveable Santa Clause figure but soon turns to a plotting, revels-in-other’s-misfortunes kind of man.
For me, the most likeable characters were the teenagers who populate the made-up town of Pagford. Only the teenagers seem to learn anything as the book goes on whereas the adults are mostly stuck in their ways and refuse to see their own faults that they see so clearly in others.
Casual Vacancy is a book about the disparities between the poor and the rich, and it paints an accurate picture of the fight that goes on in many communities today. My opinion changed many times about whose side I was supposed to be on, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter whose side you’re on. What matters is how you conduct yourself on that particular side, something JKR’s characters struggled with enormously.
In college, I took quite a few social justice classes about all the “isms” as my professor would say – sexism, classism, racism, etc. All of them feature in Casual Vacancy, so despite the fact that I found the book slow at several points, and the plot is less of a plot and more of a character study (I enjoy character studies in general, but with so many dislikeable characters, it made it difficult to keep going sometimes), I did have, at the very least, a more open perspective on these issues.
The problems I have with the Casual Vacancy are small – too many characters to keep track of in such a short time, slow in parts, inability to relate to many of the characters (which may be my own upbringing, but there were some instances that I looked at and said, “That’s happened to me.”). I related most to the teenagers, which isn’t surprising since I am still young and (hopefully) I’m not nearly as set in my ways and my beliefs as the adults. The adults seemed completely unable to look at anything from a different point of view than their own.
A lot of Harry Potter fans may not enjoy Casual Vacancy as it is a complete 180 from JKR’s normal writings. I did find it to be a good representation of the problems in today’s world and how certain things are viewed. Do I think it is as good as her previous works? It’s hard to compare the two. The writing was good, and I think stylistically, Rowling has evolved. Her nuances have also gotten better and less in-your-face than before.
The world isn’t black and white, and Casual Vacancy knows that for sure.
Have you read it? What did you think?