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Review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

This book was a very pleasant surprise. I’d read reviews suggesting that this was “no children’s book”, and celebrating the swearing, and I expected some sort of horrendous easy-read chick-lit fantastical romp about caricatures taking wholly unrealistic actions to propel along a slightly crazy plot, with little touches of romance and the odd edgy sex scene shoehorned in to prove it wasn’t for kids.

The Casual Vacancy couldn’t have been further from that. It’s a proper state-of-the-nation epic, deconstructing the casual immorality of the middle-classes with genuine insight, razor-sharp wit, and an unshakable moral compass. Lesser authors make such points by viewing society as an outsider, or transplanting it to somewhere else. Rowling’s precise characterisations allow her to deliver a devastating socialist demolition of conservative small-town parochialism through simple storytelling dashed with black comedy. I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that her approach is Dickensian, and there’s no question that its successful. I recently said that I was unmoved by One Day: that certainly isn’t true of The Casual Vacancy.

This isn’t a novel that’s thick with plot: it’s a ruminative characterisation novel. The plot, which is mainly driven by the younger characters, functions primarily to reveal more about the characters, especially the adults, through their reactions to events. In that sense, the structure is quite old-fashioned, written in the style that most books used to use before everything became short-chaptered plot-driven romps that make for simple scene-by-scene transitions to cinema. This has led to some criticism from those who expect something plot-driven from the Harry Potter author, but I found it both refreshing and brilliant. The authorship is something of a problem for this novel: I suspect it suffers poor reviews because people want Harry Potter 2, and this novel is simply not comparable. It is quite clearly aimed at a totally different audience.

A lot of reviewers have complained of difficulty keeping track of all of the characters in the novel. I can honestly say that I never found it a problem. Again, I wonder if that’s due to the recent proliferation of filmic novels withs casts of four or five making people unused to tracking wider ensembles. Or perhaps I’m just sympathetic to the novel because I loved it.

All things considered, it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s incisive, and it comes wholeheartedly recommended by me.

The Casual Vacancy is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

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