The Casual Vacancy

The world hardly needs another review of JK Rowling’s break-through book for adults, otherwise known as The World’s Most Promoted Novel. It is EVERYWHERE. Does any book need promotion less? Does any receive more? It’s unsurprising, because everyone’s fascinated to see What Harry Did Next (however different she claims it will be), but it already had attention – imagine if the promotional budget had been spent on some worthy emerging penniless novelist! The difference it could have made! Of course, these are fantasist ramblings, and no doubt the glut of PR around this launch prompted me – and my Dad, and we rarely read the same novels – to purchase.

But quickly you realise that the joke is on the nation. However many articles assure you that this is indeed a different novel to Hazza P, that it’s an adult novel with adult themes – you still believe in the innate charm of Rowling’s writing and scurry to the cash desk, volume in hand. Mistake. This novel is dark. DARK. The darkest novel I’ve read in years – wilfully so. It feels very much like Rowling has something to prove to her audience – she’s practically shrieking “Look at these adult themes! This is so adult! I can’t even remember that Potter f***er!” To prove it to you, here a quick checklist of themes comprehensively covered over the course of the novel:

Heroin addiction CHECK
Incest CHECK
Sex in a graveyard CHECK
Self-harm CHECK
Suicide CHECK
Domestic abuse CHECK

And I promise, there’s considerably more. You name it, it’s there! A richness of misery! The joke is on the earnest public, like my Dad, who bought the book for some holiday reading only to start turning each page with increasing horror and dread. Racing ahead of him on the same holiday, I felt obliged to warn him it only got worse. He abandoned it 100 pages in, leaving it at our holiday spot, only to horrify the next unsuspecting reader.

I struggled on through the misery. The first area of relief comes about 400 pages in – you’re starting to hope there could be some kind of redemptive end – then BAM! The end comes and punches you in the face, leaving you sprawling on the floor of a crack-den. The ending rivals my favourite misery tome, Jude the Obscure. It’s THAT depressing.

All this dreadfulness would be manageable if there were two things: sympathetic character(s), a must, and some sense of message that can make all of this misery lead to something (a personal preference but one I feel is shared by many.) The real problem in The Casual Vacancy is that neither of these things are present. The characters are not at all sympathetic – they are grotesque. (And if the women are pretty awful, the men are impossibly hateful.) The teenagers are the most successful characters in the novel, having rounded, flawed personalities that you ultimately want to succeed. But the sheer horror of all of the adult characters affirm that all of the young will grow up the same way, removing any sense of hope.

And as for message – the plot is one of a town at war with itself. Council estate against neat middle class old town. Council member against council member. And as no party is more sympathetic than the other (everyone is as hopeless and repellent as each other), what can you take out of it? Give up? The only character who is a potential redeeming figure dies in on page 2.

I wanted to find a flicker of life and hope – I didn’t want to write yet another review saying this is a novel without humanity. But I was forced to agree. You close the book with a distressed and astonished puff, relieved only that now you’ve finished, no more misery can be piled upon the characters.


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