Which side of the fence are you on?

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Everyone who encounters this book will have a point of view about it.

The author is a global phenomenon through the Harry Potter series: she’s worked her way up to being a multimillionaire from being a single mum, and does a lot for charity. Now she’s taken a risk, and moved on from Harry and his chums, to publish her first adult novel – for a different publisher too, (shame about the cover).

Opinion is polarised – on one hand, the knives are out, and on the other there are those who think she’s done a brave thing and are raving positively about the book.  So where does my own opinion sit? I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to sit firmly on the fence.  You see, I really enjoyed parts of it, but I do recognise that it is far from perfect.

Before I go into detail, a little scene-setting… Pagford is a sleepy little West Country town that is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, leader of one faction on the Parish Council drops dead at the Golf Club.  His demise causes a ‘Casual Vacancy’ on the Council, and its leader, Howard Mollison, sees his opportunity to take control and get rid of the Fields, the local council estate that stands in Pagford parish, but ought to belong to Yarvil, the neighbouring large town.

You see, Barry was a local boy done good – born and bred on the wrong side of town in the Fields, he devoted his life to helping local people, especially the Weedons, and particularly Krystal and her junkie single mother who is incapable of looking after her little brother (by a different father of course). He got Krystal into the posh Pagford school, where she stands out like a sore thumb being a chav, but becomes a key member of the girls rowing squad.

The town is full of dysfunctional families, each fitting an archetype that will be familiar to anyone who watches any soap opera, (or listens in the case of The Archers – I’m listening to the weekly omnibus as I write this). Apart from the Weedons, there are the Mollisons – the local bigwigs, shop owners at the centre of things in town; the Walls – Colin is deputy head at school, Tessa is school Councillor, their son Fats can’t wait to be shot of his father; the Jawindas – a professional Sikh family – Parminder is a GP, Vikram is a heart surgeon, and they live in the old vicarage, and their ugly duckling daughter Sukhvinder who has very low self esteem. There’s also the Prices, whose son Arf will set a rolling stone in motion that threatens to overwhelm the town; and finally, the Bawdens, moved from London – a social worker mother and her confident daughter – are the main families from a large cast of lesser characters.

Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley (Mollison) the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard  had sometimes  confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the scratched tables of Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.

So we have the set up for a soap opera of class war between the richer and poorer of the Parish, and oneupmanship between the families jockeying for position in the town.  I liked the premise of the plot, and was hoping for a comedy with a biting edge.

You know the story is ultimately going to be a train wreck, but it took so long to build up a full head of steam.  It was around page three hundred before things really started happening, which left two hundred for the main events.  The novel is so character-driven, that the plot tended to get squeezed out.

We could have lost a third of the novel and got a funny and fast paced story, rather than a bloated character study in which everything is over-described and listy – viz the sentence in the quote above: ‘No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her’.  Much has been made of Rowling’s robust modern language, but you don’t really notice it until the ‘c’ word appears – and you take a short sharp intake of breath, and carry on.

Almost all of the characters are unsympathetic too, the events bringing out the nasty side in virtually all of them, (mostly Slytherins then?).  All the little England stereotypes you can think of, except a male gay couple now I come to think of it, are present.

The other things that are all present (if the book hadn’t been 500 pages, I’d have said shoe-horned), are all the issues – obesity, self-harm, OCD, single mothers, rehab, spots, social workers, sex and drugs … there’s little room left for rock’n’roll.

If you think of it as a debut novel, there is often a tendency for authors to put all their initial good ideas into one book, and that’s what I feel Rowling has done here.  It was too long, too descriptive, and too full of everything. It attempted to be light-hearted, but wasn’t funny enough which meant I didn’t care about the characters, it tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

All the above sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but that’s not true. It was an interesting read, seeing a writer in transition. Here’s to the next one. (6/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Pub 27th Sept by Little, Brown. Hardback, 512 pages.

23 thoughts on “Which side of the fence are you on?

  1. Desperate Reader says:

    I’m a Rowling fan but have decided to wait for the paperback before I read this. I think she was brave to make the move into adult fiction as she must have known the sort of mixed response her book would get. So much so that it’s been a real pleasure to read a balanced review that makes me look forward to the book.

    • gaskella says:

      Thanks Hayley. It has sold shedloads, so has done well for her already, despite mixed reviews. I hope her charity Lumos does well from it too.

  2. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    It seems that you have come down on the fence – just – with 6/10 being … what? You thought it was OK/quite liked it?

    I may read it some day, but it does sound as though she’s thrown every problem in there that she could think of – I thought that too when I saw her interview with James Runcie. It comes over as a miserable book, even though you say that it attempts to be light-hearted.

    I did enjoy the HP books!

    • gaskella says:

      Yes, I’m firmly on the fence Margaret. I enjoyed it, but with reservations. I haven’t seen the interview yet, I recorded it to watch after I’d read the book.

    • gaskella says:

      The Corrections has sat on my shelf since it was published…I have no idea why I haven’t got around to reading it yet, apart from it being quite chunky. Like you, I will definitely read it at one point in time!

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I was curious about the book–not so much because I wanted to see what the author of HP did with an adult book but curious about the book due to its subject matter. It sounded like something I might read. Given the popularity of the HP books, there’s bound to be a range of reactions no matter what, so it’s hard to wade through the reader reviews. I saw a one star review on Amazon, for example, due to the book’s price.

    A good reading friend of mine bought the book on the first day and was ultimately disappointed in the book. Bottom line she felt that the bigger themes had not been developed. I read almost the same complaint in Entertainment Weekly.
    If I read it, it’ll probably be some time in the long-distant future when I picked up a used copy.

    • gaskella says:

      A lot of the negative buyer reviews on Amazon are rubbish as you say Guy – not commenting on the literary merits whatsoever, or not even realising it was an adult book. I did feel strongly that she was trying to squash too much in, and tending to over-describe it, so I had the same reaction as your friend really – although I did enjoy it (in the same way I still watch Eastenders perhaps!)

  4. heavenali says:

    I have just finished reviewing The Casual Vacancy myself – I rather liked it – it’s a good book I think – though not a great one. I agree she did rather throw everything at it : ) – it would have been more powerful in my opinion had it been shorter.

    • gaskella says:

      Just read your review too Ali. I agree – it was a good story – but for me it got bogged down in all the descriptive detail etc.

  5. LizF says:

    I think that yours is a very fair and balanced review, Annabel.
    It does sound as though it could have done with a fairly strict editorial red pencil but I’m not sure where you would find an editor brave enough to tell J K Rowling to de-list!
    I suppose I will end up reading it at some time but it’s not on my priority list – I have spent too much of my professional life having to deal with parish and town councils and their machinations, to want to read about a fictional lot any time soon!

    • gaskella says:

      I was hoping for a witty social satire, but got a miserable drama instead – but I enjoyed it in the same way that I still watch Eastenders Liz, so it was OK – but far too long!

    • gaskella says:

      I don’t have DGR’s expertise, so read it in a rather different way. We both agree on it being too long and having too many characters though!

  6. Mark Thornton says:

    Annabel – I think you are spot on with this review. Author in transition, definitely. I think she deserves a lot of respect, because she didn’t *need* to publish this book for no other reason that this is the way she wanted to go as a writer. I took look forward to the next one now she’s got the tricky ‘post-HP’ novel out of her system!

  7. winstonsdad says:

    I ve not read the potter but something about this book makes me think I will get it when they start turn up second hand ,which may not be that long I think by the way some people have dislike it straight off ,all the best stu

  8. sakura says:

    I love her HP books so will definitely be reading this one. For me, the mixed reviews make it more interesting. I wonder on which side of the fence I’ll be sitting!

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