Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

 The Casual Vacancy 

Synopsis: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the 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 facade 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?

Date Published: September 27, 2012
Published By: Little, Brown, and Company
Number of Pages: 503
Rating: 4/5

After reading The Casual Vacancy, I can understand why critics tore it to pieces when it first came out. It is the complete opposite of the beloved Harry Potter series: cynical, depressing, and there is not one likable character in the entire book. Okay, that's not totally true - there is one decent character but he dies within the first five pages. The Casual Vacancy might as well be called A Parade of Assholes. 

Despite all of these seemingly negative factors, I really enjoyed The Casual Vacancy. But I couldn't really put my finger on why I liked it until I was about a third of the way through. I was taking a break from reading and watching Pride and Prejudice when it hit me - The Casual Vacancy is a modern day Jane Austen novel.

Not in the sense that it's romantic - pretty much all of the married couples in the book are unhappy. But in the sense that The Casual Vacancy is a pitch-perfect satire, a parody of small-town society. Jane Austen is famous for her sharp eye for societal hypocrisies and exposing them in her writing. J.K. Rowling does the exact same thing here, using her knowledge of psychology and human relationships to reveal just how petty, small-minded, and self-important people can be. 

All of the characters in The Casual Vacancy are ridiculous in some way - but they are still so genuine and believable that they are totally recognizable. (It's actually a bit depressing, seeing as I've met people like this in real life.) They may not be likable, but at least they're not boring. 

Some people call The Casual Vacancy a black comedy, and I was tempted to call it that, too - until I read the ending. There is nothing funny about it at all and it made me realize that this book is a tragedy - a tragedy of people who live inside their own bubbles, too depressed, too bitter, too cynical to imagine or hope for better.

I can understand why fellow Harry Potter fans may not like The Casual Vacancy - and that's okay. I'd prefer to read about Harry and Co. than about any of the people in this book. Reading Harry Potter is inspirational and full of hope and wonder. It has plenty of characters that you can aspire to be like. The Casual Vacancy is the complete opposite - but there's still something to be learned from it. We can look at these characters and see the kind of people we don't want to be like. And even if it's cynical and depressing, there is a small bit of hope at the end. 

Love it or hate it, The Casual Vacancy is an accurate depiction of small town society - and maybe a warning about living a life without imagination or intention. 

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