Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I was startled by how much I liked this book. I tried to go into it without expectation, without expecting it to be good or terrible, or like Harry Potter, or anything. But it grabbed me almost immediately and didn't let go.

There is, of course, very little in common with Harry Potter. But that doesn't mean there is nothing in common. That strong sense of plot, the ability to hold a million aspects of her story in her head at the same time, the interesting characters, and the deft touch at dropping in details without signposting "This here is important!" Some mystery writers don't have that talent. Rowling has it in spades.

Barry Fairbrother is dead. Sounds like it should be a cozy mystery, huh? Except there's no mystery. There's no crime. There is only death, and the absence it causes. And because Barry was who he was, there is the aftermath, as friends try to cope with his death, as his wife resents the issues he spent his life campaigning for instead of spending time with her, as his adversaries on the local parish council try to take advantage of the ensuing election to push through some local legislation that could have a devastating effect on some of the inhabitants.

Who gets to call themselves a Pagfordian, anyway? That's one of the core questions of the book. How do we draw those lines? What do we do when people cross those lines? How can we keep undesirable people from infringing on our pleasant existence? How can we make it someone else's responsibility?

So many issues of modern family life are raised in this book, but The Casual Vacancy centers around poverty. How we romanticize it. How we demonize it. How we treat it, how we alleviate it, how we punish it. Those who merely want the poor to go away. Those who want to help. The fucking complexity of the issues, and the inability of simple band-aid solutions to address anything.

And I loved the characters - they jumped off the pages at me. I loved how complex they were, and the way the story wove in and out of different families, different experiences, and layered on information that continually made the story more complex. This is not a straightforward narrative. If you're looking for that, this may drive you crazy.

I loved Krystal Weedon, the person who stands to lose the most from Barry's death, but is seen as one of the least deserving to mourn him. I loved how complex she was, how the story showed her from so many different people's perspectives, and let you understand why each person felt the way they did. I ached for her, wished I could come up with a solution.

There aren't easy solutions. But there are material things we can do to not make life worse. J.K. Rowling looks at those things, and how people justify being on different sides of the same issue. How they're motivated by personal issues, personality conflicts and history.

This is a difficult book. But a really good one, and I'm so glad I read it, for all the gutwrenching.


  1. Wonderful review of an admirable book. I was just about to write my own review on Goodreads when I saw your partial one there, and then followed you here. I'm disheartened by the changes to Goodreads also. I will probably migrate my own reviews to a new website of my own as well. I have far fewerthan you, though, and I'm a librarian. Wow! You are quite impressive. I will be checking your other reviews. But now I better get to mine on CV. My New Years resolution is to write something everyday, and this was going to be it for today. Best of luck to you, Megan!

    1. Of course it would help if I put the URL for the site I just mentioned in the comment - it's

  2. Thanks, Nanette!

    The Goodreads atmosphere definitely has changed, and it saddens me. I've enjoyed having my own blog, but it's not nearly the community atmosphere.

    A couple of Goodreads reviews have just (like, last week) started a new site that is very promising so far. Sparsely populated at the moment, but the functionality is more to my personal taste than Booklikes was, and I'm seeing some familiar faces. If you're interested, look me up there!

    And I look forward to reading your reviews, wherever they may lie, as well. :)