The Casual Vacancy – 4.5 / 5.0
I was shocked to see this was one of the lowest-rated books in my to-read list. Like many others, though, I was won over by the fact that JK Rowling wrote it. Maybe it’s because the ratings and reviews allowed me to brace myself for what was coming, and allow me to be pleasantly surprised.
Others have said it, but I really want to stress this. In a lot of ways, it is nothing like Harry Potter. Besides not including an ounce of magic, this is a very adult book. By adult book, I mean including adult themes, like drugs, rape, teen sex, etc. It’s not like you’ll come across them on every single page, but they’re there, so be warned.
There are three similarities to Harry Potter, though, and they all involve Rowling’s absolutely impeccable writing.
The first is the way she works with plot. I’ll grant, it is nowhere near as exciting or breathtaking as HP, but she does wonders even with the seemingly simple storyline. It has perfect, timely doses of action, tension, and revelation.
The second is her social and political commentary. You might not necessarily expect it in a book about a small town, but it pretty much covers the gamut. She does an amazing job of giving a completely realistic picture of the issue at hand without shoving it down your throat.
Ultimately, though, it was the characters she created that blew me away. Where to even start? For starters, readers floated effortlessly through character POV transitions, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. Far from feeling disjointed, this movement was as natural as a camera flowing through a party, catching snippets of conversation, a ripple of laughter, the clink of glasses. Every character is incredibly distinct, so there is no wondering whose thoughts you are privy to at the given moment.
These characters are also incredibly fallible, and consequently incredibly real. I finished the book having mixed feeling about the lot of them, being fully familiar with their motives, strengths, and shortcomings. I was completely engrossed in a story intricately woven together with each of their tales.
Oftentimes, however, the ending will ultimately decide how I feel about a book. It can leave a bitter taste in my mouth I simply can’t get rid of. I’m happy to say the ending felt right to me. It wasn’t a grand, climactic moment to be sure. I did feel, though, that it had the right amount of tragedy and triumph that was fitting for the characters involved and the novel as a whole.
Whatever doubts I had when starting this book about Rowling’s post-HP work is long gone by now, and I look forward to reading more of her work. I can’t say I’m surprised. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Hogwarts or Pagford. With an amazing storyteller like Rowling, the magic flows from her words.