Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Or, as Tyler and I called it on the podcast, “Everyone’s an asshole and nobody is happy.”

I read this book for Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks and, really, it was a difficult book to get through. Not because the writing is bad, because it isn’t; she has some incredibly illustrative and well-crafted turns of phrase that, frankly, I’m jealous of. The two complaints, writing-wise, I have are that she has these jarring, almost movie-like asides that are like mini-scenes set in parenthesis in the middle of a different scene to give you an almost flashback context to what is going on in the main scene. She also has, IMO, a tendency to shove a lot of info down your throat in one go.

No, the reason why this book was difficult to get through for me is that everyone, every last person in this book, is at some point an asshole and no one is happy. Let me explain.

The Casual Vacancy takes place in the English town Pagford and opens up with the death of Barry Fairbrother, coach and local councilmember. The term “casual vacancy” refers to when there is a sudden gap in a local council from death and it is Barry’s death that starts off the chain of events in this book as people begin to jockey for Barry’s position on the council.

You see, Pagford is in a sort of passive-aggressive culture war with the neighboring town Yarvil. Yarvil, if I understand correctly, is the head of the local county and also a much more urban place to be, something that Pagford, who snootily believes its superiority based on being a “small town”, looks down on. Trapped in between the two of them is a housing development called The Fields, a low-income area full of crime, drugs, and the poor. Yarvil passed The Fields off on Pagford many years ago, causing children from The Fields to go to Pagford schools (causing all kinds of issues, real and imagined) and for Pagford to be mainly financially responsible for the project. Also included with The Fields is a drug treatment/addiction center that is looked down on as a failure (because it hasn’t cured people of their addiction in some sort of instantaneous and magical fashion and because it causes drug users to be around). On the Pagford council there are two factions: the faction of snooty Pagfordians that want to make Yarvil take The Fields back and to kick out the addiction clinic when their lease is up, thus reducing necessary resources to struggling Fielders, and the faction that wants to keep The Fields because Pagford could possibly help them and keep the clinic. Barry Fairbrother, having come from The Fields, was on the side in favor of the project and with his death the balance has shifted to the anti-Fields faction with the possibility of them gaining Barry’s seat and another vote to get rid of the development.

That is the drama that most of the book is about and it is the desire for this seat, or the desire to be as far away from it as possible, reveals just how the characters of TCV are incredible assholes, incredibly unhappy, or incredibly unhappy assholes. The closest I got to any of the characters was through sympathy, there’s Sukhvinder who is a bullied Indian girl and Krystal who is the daughter of a heroin junkie who isn’t a bad person but has had a very difficult life, but even these two characters end up being assholes in some significant fashion. I mean, these are people who, if I met in real life, I would want nothing to do with because they are so incredibly toxic.

Beyond the inability to connect with and like any of the characters there’s this inches thick layer of negativity that fills the book. Have you ever been around a person who is constantly dour, a person who isn’t just a pessimist but is also a dick about it? You know that soul-sucking void of gloominess that makes you never want to associate with them? Yeah, that’s this book. For nearly five hundred pages there’s not a single good thing that happens; there are plenty of things that aren’t negative that happen, a character getting a job for instance, but nothing like genuine happiness at something. The closest we get are characters reveling in the acquisition of whatever they’ve selfishly desired, whether that’s a stolen computer, the suffering of someone else, or the attention of a person they are obsessed with.

Aside from the struggle over Barry’s open council seat is the struggle of the children of the adults trying to join the council. There’s Fats, the adopted son of the local school headmaster who has decided in some sort of nihilistic fashion that being a selfish asshole and a thug is some how more “genuine” than not being such a person, Andrew, the abused “best friend” of Fats (in that they were best friends at one point but now are only so because of habit), the previously mentioned Sukhvinder and Krystal, and Gaia, a pretty, pretty unhappy and pretty snooty girl dragged to Pagford from London by her mother’s ill-fated fatuation with a Pagfordian.

We see just how shitty life is in Pagford, the unpleasant stink beneath the veneer of congeniality, from these two points of view, the adults and the children they drag along behind them. To add an extra dollop of suck to the narrative at different times children hack the council’s message board and air extremely negative family secrets about their parents to the town’s consciousness in an effort to ruin or get back at them (to the point where Andrew’s father loses his job and Fat’s adopted father becomes an emotional wreck and a shut in).

In the end the election happens, an anti-Fieldser wins the seat, and it’s almost a relief because that’s finally over. Only it’s not, because the book has one last shitty thing to put us through in that the one character who was innocent of all of this garbage, the most sincerest victim of the lives of the people around him, Robbie, Krystal’s younger brother, falls into the river that runs through the town and drowns while his sister, who was supposed to be watching him after she takes him from their junkie mother, has sex with Fats in some bushes. Robbie’s death causes Krystal to finally snap and she flees home, locks herself in the bathroom, and commits suicide by overdose on her mother’s heroin. Similarly, Robbie’s death finally breaks Fats of his selfish cynicism, the death of a child finally sinking in that Fats’ actions have consequences to the people around him, but TCV can’t let this be happy and so his adopted mother takes him around to see where Fats came from, telling him that there was probably a chance he was the product of incest.

JOY!

The book concludes by wrapping up several of the plot threads in a limp attempt at happy endings (for some people, anyway). The most positive is Sukhvinder’s because she was the only person (our of a handful) who attempted to save Robbie by leaping into the river after him, causing her to seriously cut open her thigh. This selfless act, one of the very few in this book, causes her parents to realize she’s not as much of a failure as they thought and also reveals just how depressed there daughter was when they see the scars from her self-harm (I don’t know if they realized she was at the bridge over the river to kill herself but whatever). One character, Samantha (who is the wife of Miles who won the council seat) comes to face her addiction to alcohol and also appears to be working on patching up her marriage (after getting caught drunkenly snogging a sixteen year-old at her husband’s celebration for joining the council), and Kay, mother of Gaia, finally stops being a doormat for her shit boyfriend.

However, while these things are positive, they don’t make it a happy ending. There’s nothing, save a theoretical five hundred more pages of nothing but rainbows and kittens, that could tip the scales of baldfaced sucking into something better. And in the end you can’t even say that any of the characters, really, learned anything from deaths of Krystal and Robbie because they can’t even face how they came to be dead; the last image of the book we have is Terri Wheedon, Krystal and Robbie’s mother, being dragged down the aisle of the church away from her children’s funeral service because she can’t even stand due to her addiction and not a single person, not even Sukhvinder who arranged the funeral for the two dead children, is able to look at her and thus show they are facing the negative reality around them.

The Casual Vacancy is, as I have detailed, an extremely negative book and, while I know that such books or movies appeal to certain people, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand what J.K. Rowling was attempting to say. Was this a critique of small town, English-life? Was this supposed to be negative commentary on the selfish nature of humanity and how it takes something incredibly shocking and tragic to jerk us out of ourselves and into looking at the world around us? I don’t know, whatever lesson that could have been learned feels lost in the noise of negativity that fills this novel.

When we decided to read TCV I was worried that J.K. Rowling would go a different route, try to be “edgier” to prove she could write stories other than those meant for children with wizards in them, but instead she went for “miserable as hell” instead. Unless you have a whole litter of kittens to cuddle with after this, skip this book.

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