Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

Guest Blogger: Tayler Morrissey


I know what you are thinking, and the answer is yes, this is the same J.K. Rowling that wrote the fabulous Harry Potter books. And yes, I will fully disclose my love and admiration for this young adult literature.  I love her magical series so much that I admit I was a tad reluctant to even begin A Casual Vacancy, Rowling's first foray into adult fiction. I was afraid that if the book was horrible with all its non-magical mundane it would somehow ruin Harry Potter for me as well.

An irrational fear? Yes. And, thankfully, also completely unfounded.

The Casual Vacancy is a wonder in its own right. But it is not Harry Potter. It is not even in the same galaxy as Harry Potter. And that is a good thing, because the little town of Pagford has enough problems of its own.


The first thing that happens is Councilman Barry Fairbrother dies.

It happens as suddenly and as simply as that, but the repercussions echo relentlessly through the sleepy town. Fairbrother's newly empty seat on the Pagford Parish Council exposes dark and deep-seated rifts within the small community, and the charming countryside houses with sweet names like "Ambleside" and "Hilltop House" seem to transform overnight into dens of secrecy and duplicity.

Rowling proves herself again an able storyteller. She introduces us to a vast array of characters, all of whom are wonderfully human: complex, motivated, flawed. The townspeople of Pagford struggle with political scandal, marital infidelity, substance abuse, addiction, poverty, and a whole spectrum of emotional and physical abuse. The Casual Vacancy meditates on the ties that bind us together, how we create and navigate our social relationships as families, coworkers, school mates, communities, political bodies, and neighbors. That is not to say, however, that this is a heartwarming tale. Yes, some relationships are based on love of some kind and degree, but many more are the uncomfortable product of obligation, old habit, or exploitation. While I found this novel to be engrossing and realistic, some of the darker scenes were mildly disturbing and it seemed almost as if Rowling were overreaching a bit on the "adult" factor.

Bookended by death, Rowling's newest novel is an interesting exploration of how we both build up and destroy meaning in our own lives. Through a structure of interwoven stories, we see how connected our human lives really are, especially when we remember that all the actions in the story are simply the great ripple effects of a whole community learning to cope with the aftermath of just one man's death. 

The Bottom Line: While I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy's vivid characters and gritty story line, those looking for a light read or a restored faith in humanity should look elsewhere.

Tayler Morrissey received her degree in English from University of California, Santa Barbara.

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