If I had to sum up my feelings about The Casual Vacancy in one sentence, I’d say: I think J.K. Rowling was trying so hard not to write Harry Potter that she overcompensated terribly.
Believe me, I really did not want to read Harry Potter again nor was I expecting to. I wanted to love something Rowling wrote that was completely different and, even though I’d heard very mixed reviews about the book, I went into it with an open mind.
Had I only read the first half of the book, I would have given it two stars. Since I pushed myself to finish and actually did find the book more intriguing during the second half, I give it three out of five stars.
My main issue with this novel were the characters’ lack of redeeming qualities. One of the main pointers I learned when I took creative writing in college was that every character has to be well-rounded; no one is just a bad guy. Maybe he’s a bad guy with a soft spot for puppies. Or she’s a huge bitch but takes care of her disabled sister with more love than you thought she possessed. Now it’s true that not all novels have to involve characters with redeeming qualities, but in that instance, I would hope the book spotlights on one person and all their misdeeds as sort of a shocking precautionary tale. For instance, I don’t care if you write a book about Hitler and don’t focus on his soft spot for puppies (although I think that actually make the book more shocking).
Instead the book skates through the lives of dozens of unhappy characters: husbands and wives who hate each other, mothers who do drugs and ignore their children, fathers who beat and verbally abuse their children, children who bully, steal, and get raped. Certainly it’s well written; Rowling has not lost her knack for vivid descriptions and allowing characters personalities to unfold gradually. It simply wasn’t a story worth telling.
I’m unsure whether the character whom all the others dance around the entire book, the newly deceased Barry Fairbrother, would have been my favorite, but that’s what I’m desperately hoping. The most intriguing parts of the book were when the adults who try to fill his vacant seat on the council are taken down a peg by their children posting their misdeeds on a council website under the pseudonym “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.”
The characters whom I root for most in this novel were the children. because I had to have hope that this entire town wasn’t completely devoid of goodwill. Much like the red-coated girl in Schindler’s List, a three year old from the slums acts as a beacon of hope. Robbie is neither a good kid nor a bad kid; just a child who has seen his mother prostitute herself, do drugs, ignore and forget about him and yet…I dared to hope he would have a better life in the future. But no matter how hard his sister Krystal fights for him, it was all for naught. The book left me feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and almost believing there’s no decency left in the world.
If you want to see what J.K. Rowling is capable of, read this book. But I strongly advise borrowing it from the library.