October 07, 2012

A Review of "The Casual Vacancy"

The Casual Vacancy
by J.K. Rowling

I finished this book in a mad dash at 4:00 a.m. this morning.  It is now nearly 10:00 p.m., and after giving myself the whole day to process it, I have to sit down and review it while it's still a fresh wound on my mind.  I don't use the word "wound" in an entirely perjorative sense; after all, when a surgeon recently repaired a hernea for me, I was very grateful to have him do so.  However, the large incision he made in the process was certainly a wound nonetheless.  And honestly, I'm still not sure how grateful I am to J.K. Rowling for the experience of The Casual Vacancy, but certainly not as grateful as I was to my surgeon.  Of that I have no doubt whatever.

All of us knew going in that there would be no magic or centaurs or floo powder in this book.  We wished we were wrong about that, but we knew that we weren't, and that all the publicity for this book had pointedly reminded us over and over that this is Rowling's first book solely for ADULTS.  Yet my overriding impression throughout most of the book was that this book was for Rowling what Equus was for Daniel Radcliffe--it was as if she wanted to shock, to prove that she does know stronger swear words than, "Bloody hell!", and is aware that teenagers actually have sex every day all over the world.

The language of this book is extremely crude.  I never met a swear word I didn't love, and I routinely ruffle people's feathers before I remember that not everyone employs the full force of the English language in ordinary, dispassionate conversation.  So, I really wasn't that bothered by the language, but I know many, many people who would never have survived past the first chapter or two.  They would have been desperate to bleach their brains.  The much greater challenge for me was the actual content of the book.  Nearly everything that took place from start to finish was on a scale of negativity ranging from unpleasant to totally horrific.  Until the very end, there's hardly a single character that you can actually like.  It is just an unrelenting onslaught of hateful human thought and behavior and depressing, tragic events.  If the book had been by almost ANY other author, I would've given up in disgust very early on.

Here's why I didn't.  There were several moments in the last three or four Harry Potter books at which I thought, "Oh, my gosh!  She's finally let the whole thing get away from her.  My favorite series is about to jump the frigging shark!!"  She always pulled it off in the end.  After the genuinely epic Harry Potter saga, I had learned to trust J.K. Rowling.  Implicitly.  So I barrelled on through this tale of woe, often thinking to myself, "I am used to your writing always ending with an absolutely life-affirming larger message.  How on EARTH are you going to manage that in these last 100 pages, Jo?!"

I'll be damned if she didn't manage it in the end.  I was absolutely gob-smacked that she pulled it out of the fire, but she did.  I kept thinking that in order to try and put a decent ending on this long, drawn-out tragedy, she'd have to make people change so much and behave so completely out of character that she'd just be blowing sunshine up our asses, and it would be completely unbelievable.  But let us never forget that when all is said and done, the woman can WRITE!  My God, she can write, and she managed it in the end.  I think the only question will be whether that ultimate payoff will be big enough for others who wade through all the misery to get to it.  For me, it was--barely.


  1. And that's why I'm probably not going to read the book. I'm not a huge Rowling fan anyway. I can't get excited about reading a book that is nearly all misery and ick, though I am glad to hear that the ending has a payoff.

  2. I was worried about the "I'm proving I can write for adults" factor, and I'm glad that didn't continue too often past the first few chapters. I was very impressed by the characterization and such. My review will go up later this week. On the other hand, I felt like the ending was a bit too much, all the different threads coming together, which felt too unrealistic. But I also found a lot of good in the characters, too, not just negative.

  3. Hmmm... not worth a credit on Audible.com, it sounds like. Thanks for the review and for "taking one for the team" - appreciate it! :-)


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