Reviews: The Casual Vacancy

Everyone has crud lives

A rich upper-middle class little town with a 'parish council' (and can there be any term more illustrative?) has a council estate(The Fields) fostered upon them. It brings with it crime and disruption but also a glimmer of hope for self improvement in the elitest school that they're now in the catchment area for. One person grows up in The Fields and seizes that opportunity to better himself and get the life he always wanted and he puts his life to giving other people that opportunity, arguing fervently on the parish council that they shouldn't cut the poor people loose, as a strong section want to do. And then he dies and leaves The Casual Vacancy.

The main purpose in this book is to explain people suck and life sucks. Everyone has a horrible secret and attitude, everyone has someone they can't stand. The nice people are pathetic and struggling to keep their lives together. And it's even worse for the people in the poorest situations.

It makes for uncomfortable reading, yet nothing that is written feels like something that doesn't happen, that someone doesn't have to suffer through, so I'm not sure that it's right to avoid it because it's unpleasant. Life can be unpleasant and by ignoring it we're creating an excuse not to help and get involved. There's almost no drive to read on throughout most of the book and it's so awful to get glimpses into peoples lives like this that it can be a struggle to read, but not necessarily for bad reasons.

But the books does reach its failings. It's not realistic that everyone has such dark struggles in their lives, but realism can be pushed aside, the books is showing us fictitiously something important to learn and having people with normal lives would have been boring and furthered nothing. Besides divorce is now a regular part of growing up and its fair to say that we all probably have bad moments in our lives (although a simple divorce would have been a breath of fresh air here). But it's so all consumingly negative that it destroys hope, it's easy to feel like there's no solution and no way of making it better which makes the book unbearably morbid and unhelpful to read. Taking everything onboard could negatively affect a life. It also makes things a little boring, its only at the very end where it stops feeling like everything happening isn't just establishing the central theme

Decidedly not magical... what's the problem with that?

Practically every negative review I have seen of The Casual Vacancy has included at least one comparison to Harry Potter, stating that every single aspect of the book is inferior to JK Rowling's most famous work. This may not be an unfair piece of analysis when it comes to the writing style, but the simple fact of the matter is that The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter. It is, perhaps, the most "real" book that I have yet read. There are no heroes, there aren't really any villains, there's crappy romances, there's whiny teenagers, there's pompous prats, there's people suffering, there's a Cluster F Bomb going off left and right- in other words, it's what I experience every time I leave my home.

I do not love the Casual Vacancy- in fact, I can't even really say that I like it. If I wanted to go experience reality more than I already do, I wouldn't be a troper. But the only real criticism of the book itself is that it is a bit lacking in the departments of reality that Harry Potter handled so well (dang it, I'm doing it, too!) which is its depiction of the great things humanity can achieve and the real caring that we can show to each other. Ignoring my quibble, the book has no real major faults that my eyes can see. The prose is excellent, the characters are all, despite whatever some critics might say, three-dimensional, the setting is well-constructed, and the plot is extremely engaging; by the time I was halfway through the book, I could not put it down. Again, I did not particularly enjoy getting into these characters' heads, but Rowling did a masterful job at making the mundane-seeming premise truly engaging. It might not be a story that needed to be told, but it's certainly one that I am glad I read.

Melodrama oozes from every pore.

PLOT SYNOPSIS: When parish councillor Barry Fairbrother dies, war erupts over his seat in the town of Pagford.

REVIEW: In the excellent book "How Not to Write a Novel" there is an seam of bad writing known as "The Unruly Zit: When the author has read too much Bukowski". This when the author overdoes it with the disgusting details, where everything is repulsive. A Casual Vacancy is this, with a side helping of melodrama and banal social commentary. In a word this book is overdone. There's no subtlety; everyone is either weak-willed, pathetic or monstrous. There's no tact; you will hear about every erection, see every scab. There's no humour; if there's a joke the author will probably explain it. This book piles on misery to the point of absurdity. It's every soap opera mashed together with the happy parts removed. Every issue is jammed in from self-harm, suicide, drugs, infidelity, to domestic abuse and yet the book has nothing to say.

On the technical side the author has an annoying habit of giving people accents. God I wish she'd have learnt how irritating Fleur was because of this. There are far too many instances of telling which should have been showing and there are countless usages of brackets. There are too many characters, most of whom never rise above cardboard cut-outs, and the book switches between them mid-paragraph like this is Dune or something. Some readers can chalk this up to style but it's a very tacky style.

For the record I wasn't fond of Harry Potter after the third book, and I think it's a good thing that the author is trying to branch out and do something new. No author wants to be a one-Potter pony. But this book is awful. It's overlong. It's condescending. It reeks too heavily of an author out of touch with ordinary, everyday people. It's as if the author doesn't care about the notion of empathy, that adult fiction is about inherently unlikable people. I'm reminded of a Superman story where Superman is dying, so he's racing around the world stopping super-villains and curing cancer, yet he still finds the time to save one suicidal teenager. That one page held more warmth, humanity and insight than this book had in five-hundred. That Superman story was funnier too.

CONCLUSION: This book isn't for children. It isn't for adults either. It's childish and will be forgotten soon enough.