The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
I’m quite surprised that I stayed up until half past one in the morning finishing The Casual Vacancy. Although a Harry Potter fan, it has always been more about growing up with Harry, Ron and Hermione than Rowling’s writing that has been the joy of her novels. Rowling writes lightly and not in a way that is stylistically remarkable, nor does much actually happen in Casual Vacancy, which revolves around the death of a village council member and the election that results from it.
Two reasons for my fondness and the sleeplessness this book caused spring to mind. One is Rowling’s ability to write characters. The slow-paced action allows for lots of character exploration – the book would benefit from a dramatis personae, and readers may want to make one for themselves, although the number of characters doesn’t by any means make it impossible to remember them all – and I at least found myself very immersed in the lives of the characters. The picture presented of them in the beginning is nothing like what it turns out to be, and Rowling manages this very deftly. Although at times the question on believability rises, almost as often I found myself stopping to think how some action or other was understandable and showed good observation of people’s inner workings, and therefore I chose to let some of the bumpy turns of events slide.
What events? You just said nothing happens! True. But here’s the second reason I think I stayed up to finish the novel way past my bed time: I like narratives where very little actually happens. I like Jane Austen, and if you don’t like her works, your argument probably is that nothing happens. That’s exactly what goes on in Casual Vacancy. The small village of Pagford does not offer much in terms of car chases and explosions, but if you like small town gossip, you are in for a treat! The interpersonal relationships are fascinating, and the small, tightly connected cast means keeping secrets is difficult, to say the least. Although the events in the novel are small, they have a great impact on the characters, just as little things have a great effect on us in real life.
Overall, I liked the book, although I would have perhaps liked the ending to be more tightly tied up. Rowling’s writing is easy to get into, she sketches her characters deftly, and, I dare claim, they are very realistic and life-like. The novel’s end mirrors life – some get their way, some do not, and we do not know where they go afterwards. Although there is a possibility that this book will grow on me, I don’t at the moment see myself rereading it, but I’m glad I did.
The Casual Vacancy is very much in the English tradition; in my head I connect it to Eliot’s Middlemarch and Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles. If you like character exploration and are looking for a quick, light read, I recommend this one. I found it a pleasant experience.