21st Century,  General Fiction

The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

When The Casual Vacancy news flooded the world some months ago, I was super excited for J.R Rowling publishing an adult book, a typically English book and for the description provided on many websites, it almost felt like a modern Cranford. So, I bought it and finally after a lot of waiting (never trust the mail system) it arrived at the beginning of October and although it was not what I expected, it was a great reading.

From The Book Depository:

When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.

First thing you need to know is that there are a lot of characters, so I highly recommend drawing family trees and keeping the piece of paper nearby while reading. This is, after all, the story of a little town. I would even say the town herself is the main character and the families become secondary: it is the relationships they form from being in the same town that create the characters, it is what define them. For me, it was very interesting to see how the place affected her inhabitants and how the town manipulated them. Why I say that a place can manipulate people, I blame Foucault, Derrida and Rossi Braidotti.

But what I liked the most about Rowling’s writing is how she deals with social problems from what is clearly an insider’s view. We all know how she wrote the Harry Potter series after finding herself “as poor as you can be in the UK without being homeless” and with a little baby girl to care for. It was then that she benefited from social welfare and, in The Casual Vacancy, that social welfare is discussed from two opposite points of view: those who want to stop it and those who want to keep it. What is most interesting is that neither sides are good or bad, they are all grey. They are all perfectly drawn, human characters. They are believable.

Regarding the characters, the book explores all ranges of social class: from those who benefit from social welfare to those who rule the city, from lawyers and doctors to unemployed drug addicts, from healthy people to incredibly sick and disturbed ones, from youths to grown-ups. They are all connected and they are all vulnerable thanks to their belonging to the community that Pagford is. Not only do they need each other, but they live for each other, because human beings are after all, social animals.

So, I would recommend The Casual Vacancy to anyone who is in search for a long, complex but highly enjoyable reading. It is 500 pages long and it contains adult language (the F-word appears a lot), but at the same time is a realistic portrait of a human community. It is, very much the English and community-oriented counterpart to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. A novel typical of the 21st century.

Finally I would like to make a quick note on Rowling’s side regarding social welfare. She has said:

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

Although she is clearly pro-welfare, she presents both sides and portrays them as faithfully as possible. Both sides have powerful arguments and they are worth hearing, but it is our own personal choice what remains.

The following part of the review contains SPOILERS:

I really enjoyed the book, but was super surprised by:

  • How Barry ignored his own family. I’ve seen examples of people who care too much about outsiders and not enough for their own families but reading how angry and disappointed Mary was gave me a taste of what it is to someone like that. Pure cruelty under a mask of social conscience and a good image in the community.
  • Colin’s dirty secret. I seriously don’t know how Tessa could love him or how Fats was not afraid of him. Or how he dared to work in a high school. I could not pity him, I tried but then the “what if he was the headmaster of your children’s high school?” thought came around and that was it.
  • Krystal’s fatal ending. Rowling made a really good point for those against welfare: Krystal wanted to take advantage of the system and was willing to risk it all to have Robbie because somehow, the system had failed her. Tears came to my eyes as they found his body and she then locked herself in the bathroom. I knew what she was thinking of and did not question for one moment whether it was the right decision or not. I spent the whole novel wondering how she put up with everything. I couldn’t.

What do you think? Are there any other moments that surprised you?






  • Leah

    Excellent review! I kept getting the characters mixed up while reading (I took notes to remind myself, as well), but thinking back after reading, I couldn’t think of any that shouldn’t have been in the book. Rowling has a huge cast of characters, but they are all so necessary for portraying this town with all of it’s different personalities and social strata.

    I really like your idea that the town itself is a kind of character in this book. Just like the characters, the town has many different sides; it isn’t what it looks like from the outside (a charming village with an old cathedral), and it has both positive and negative qualities.

    • Elena

      I had to look at my family tress every time I started a chapter, so don’t worry, it was not only you. However, I do agree they were all necessary and all the work to trace their relationships was worth it 🙂

  • Lianne @

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book! I didn’t read the spoilery section since I want to read it for myself at some point but it does sound like a book I’d check out…perhaps when I’m in the mood for something quiet and complex 🙂

  • amanda

    Haven’t yet read this one. When I heard it was coming out (even before the description was released), I wasn’t sure if I’d bother (even though I love the Harry Potter books), but I’ve seen enough positive reviews from sources I trust that I might look for it at the library sometime. (In a year or two when there’s not a big pile-up of holds on it!) Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Elena

      I think it’s a very modern novel and, yes, it is a bestseller; but it is also good. I’d like people to see beyond the author’s name on this one because it’s reall good.

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