The Casual Vacancy
Published by Hatchette Audio
By J. K. Rowling
Read by Tom Hollander
When I first heard that J. K. Rowling was writing a book for adults I was interested. Even when I heard that it would be neither science fiction nor fantasy, I continued to be interested in the story. Her writing, I thought, had always had an interesting sparkle and I looked forward to seeing what she had to offer to other genres.
Okay, that said, I shall get right to the heart of my review. This book is rubbish. If this were Ms Rowling’s first book it would not have been a best seller and, in fact, I would bet it would never have been picked up for publication.
Now why do I say that? Is it because this is so different from the Harry Potter books that I was shocked? I doubt that. For weeks before the book was released I was busy telling friends just that. The story is not a fantasy and it is not written for children and we should not be surprised by adult-oriented subject matter, but there is a limit. Well, for me, at least.
I was expecting a mainstream novel, and I was expecting some strong language. However, it seems to me that dropping that many F-bombs ought to be in violation of something; the Geneva Convention? Kyoto??? I was also turned off by the gratuitous teen sex, drug abuse, physical-self mutilation, rapes, suicide and so forth. In fact the only truly good person in the entire book seems to be a character named Barry Fairbrother and he does not really count because he dies just before the actual start of the story. Instead we have a study in selfishness, self-absorption, greed, vindictiveness, the rest of the seven deadly sins and a lot of very unpleasant people. By the end of the story I got the impression that Ms. Rowling wanted me to know that life is invariably unpleasant and everyone is disgusting in some way.
Pacing in the story is poor as well. I noticed when I was two thirds of the way through the book, that nothing had really happened. Two thirds of the way and the author was still setting up the story. Then there were a few minor incidents and then there was a pause in the action as everyone talked about what had happened, then a few more minor incidents and all the reactions to them and then finally the climax of the book in which a lot of things happen very rapidly in a single chapter. Come to think about it, that was exactly like the Harry Potter books.
Ms Rowling appears to have a single style of story-telling in which she builds up very slowly until something big happens and then the story ends. The Potter books were saved by the fact that they took place in a magical world in which there was so much for us to learn before we could fully appreciate the action when we got to it and Ms Rowling presented it in such an interesting manner that we really did not notice that the plot was not really moving along much. But Pagford is not in a magical world. It is just a small town in England, but really could be almost anywhere. I will admit I did not know what a casual vacancy was before I read the book and there are minutia of small town governance in England with which I was not previously aware, but none of that was very different from small towns in the United States so I was pretty much aware of the background five minutes in and spent hours waiting for something to happen.
Some of my fellow reviewers found the story blackly comic, with lots of surprises that made them think. Sorry, I just did not see it. I like black comedy most of the time, but there was nothing comical in the story to me. A bit satiric, maybe, but comic? No, there was nothing to laugh at in this one. As for surprising and thought provoking? Well, it did make wonder where I had seen all this before. Far from original, it all sounded far too familiar, but I cannot recall where I might have read such a story unless it was in my daily newspaper. In any case, I give it zero points for originality. I certainly was not surprised by any of it.
There were also too many main characters in this book. With enough points of view you can turn flash fiction into a novel-length work. The Casual Vacancy has all the story content of a short story or maybe a novelette, but when you bounce the point of view between a couple dozen characters it gets long. The technique seems to be a popular one among authors who feel the pressure to write books over four hundred pages long. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it becomes painfully obvious that the story is being padded for length. There are a lot of characters in this book we could certainly do without. Plot-wise at least half are there to say the equivalent of, “That’s how it looks to me too.”
J. K. Rowling has proven to us that she is a very talented writer, but her talent did not come through in this effort. Her characters are two-dimensionally shallow caricatures of people; I might as well have been watching an ancient Roman play in which I would know the character from the mask he or she wore. And it was because they were so shallow that the book held no surprises for me.
Okay, the story may have been rubbish, but the reader did a fine job with what he had to present. Tom Hollander’s voice delineated the characters well so even though they were flat and uninteresting, he managed to breathe a little life into them. Had I been reading the book, I doubt I would have finished it, but his reading was easy to listen too even though I detested the story he read.
All told, it is a shame J. K. Rowling seems to have phoned this novel in. Even when big things are happening, she frequently does not build up to them well, forcing the reader to figure out what the character must have been thinking, because the character never really tells us that. However, if anything saves the book it is Tom Hollander’s reading of it. I see that he has also read, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Maybe I will get a copy of that soon, since I am in no hurry to read or listen to anything new by J.K. Rowling.