Like most, I was introduced to J. K. Rowling through her highly successful Harry Potter series, which I first started reading as a 7-year-old second grader. Her writing is incredibly engrossing; for the last three books of the series, I sat and read them beginning to end in a day, stopping only to eat. Harry Potter framed my childhood, so, now that that series has ended and I’m an adult, I was quite excited to get my hands on a copy of JKR’s newest book. I purchased it on the day that it came out and read 150 pages fairly quickly. Though the content was very different, the way it was written was very familiar and readable. However, I was still unsure of where the story was going halfway through the book, and, now that I’ve finished, I’m at a loss for words…what exactly is my opinion?
For starters, The Casual Vacancy is NOT for children. With drug references, foul language, and several instances of sexual situations (for the most part, non-graphic), this book is definitely for adults. Though I said that the content is different, and it is, Jo’s study of her characters remains as consistent as it was in Harry Potter; even when I didn’t know where the story was going, I knew I wanted to keep reading because I wanted to learn more about these characters, of which there are several…off the top of my head, I can think of at least 13-15 characters with whom Jo spends plenty of time developing and fleshing out. Not all of them are lovable – in fact, most of them aren’t – but that’s what kept me reading most of the time. I wanted to know what was going to happen with Krystal Weedon and with her younger brother Robbie, I wanted to know who was going to fill Barry Fairbrother’s seat on the council, I wanted to know whether Andrew Price would ever score with Gaia Bawden…and so I kept reading, even when it wasn’t the story that left me thirsting for more.
In fact, the story isn’t the reason why you read this book. Unlike in the Harry Potter series, there isn’t a main character fighting an evil villain with a mission at hand; we’re reading about the ordinary lives of the people in Pagford and how they react to the death of one of the council members, and that’s pretty much it. So, like I said, it’s the characters more than anything that keeps you thirsting for more to read. Even when I only had twenty pages left of the book, I had no idea where it was going or how it would end. Personally, I found that fascinating, and I thought it was incredibly impressive of JKR to be able to hold my attention for that long without revealing anything, but I can see why someone would brand the whole book as “boring” after the first 50 pages and toss it aside.
The Casual Vacancy isn’t for everyone. I wish I could say that you’ll love it if you loved Harry Potter, but, since the two are so different, I can’t make that promise to you. If you’re okay with reading something that is more about characters than about story and with an ending that doesn’t really “end,” you should definitely give it a try. In fact, everyone should at least pick it up and try to read it; if you don’t like it, set it aside. The real treat here is to see JKR’s storytelling abilities in a world outside that of Harry’s, which I think that she does a splendid job with. With themes of poverty, rape, drugs, domestic/child abuse, self-harm, suicide, and politics all being discussed in the book, The Casual Vacancy isn’t a happy book, but it’s certainly compelling and poignant.
Rating: 4 (out of 5)