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The Casual Vacancy
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1,876 of 1,967 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2012
Oh dear! There seems to so much negativity on this review board that it is difficult to start a positive review without dealing with some of it. I think I will therefore start with some advice as to who shouldn't buy this book, this might save some people some money and also stop this board from filling up with largely unhelpful 1 star reviews.
Don't buy it is you resent paying a tenner. That's how much it costs. It's a new book by a much loved best -selling author and you're reading it within a few days of publication. Get over it.
Don't buy it if you want a roller-coaster fast- moving plot. This is a quietly written character driven novel that requires a bit of patience and thought. It needs its length for the many characters to develop. You can't really comment on it until you've read it right to the end.
Don't expect any magic. This is a starkly realistic novel. I would view this as one of its strengths but if you can't take "warts and all" characterisations of ordinary people and some pretty unsavoury behaviour than stay away.
Don't buy it if you have knee jerk political opinions. Many people seem to see this book as a snobbish and judgemental duffing up of the poor old squeezed middles. This isn't in fact the case, everybody gets a pretty good duffing up but if you believe everything it says in The Daily Mail (or The Guardian for that matter) it might be an idea to stay away :-)
You need to have a bit of patience with the characters. They are not at first sight loveable (any of them) but if you've read the first few chapters and have decided (correctly) that Samantha is a first class bitch and Fats is an appalling little shit then please give them a little more time. Character development is a lot of the point of this book. You will know most of the major players a lot better by the end.
Who then should buy this book? I think basically if you enjoy literary fiction then you are in with a chance. Having said that I still think there will be plenty of "high brows" who will dislike it. It is very plainly written with a slow linear plot line. You will find no hint of Amis type literary smart-arsery so don't expect it. Secondly (shock horror) the book has moral content, in fact the last few chapters of part five are basically the parable of the good Samaritan and in part six some of the cast find a kind of "redemption". I'm surprised no-one else has pointed this out. If you are going to be dreadfully offended by this then again, stay away.
For myself I liked it a lot, I can't think of another modern novel to compare it to, with its slow pace, large cast of well-drawn characters and slight preachiness it is curiously old fashioned. If I have any criticism at all it is that one or two of the large cast do remain a little 2 dimensional but Fats, Andrew, Krystal and a few of the others will stay with me for a long time. To flesh everybody out in the same detail would have required an even longer book, as it is I read the whole 500 pages in two days, I wasn't a particular Harry Potter fan, If I hadn't been enjoying it I would have given up. Draw your own conclusions.
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195 of 206 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2013
My desire to read this book stemmed purely from a love of J.K. Rowling's previous work (You-Know-What, or They-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named). From the off, I knew to expect something different. I'd seen the poster at the books store. It stated categorically that her new book was for adults (funnily enough, this poster was in the children's section). Regardless, I knew that I was going to read whatever she brought out next, having already been impressed by her writing skill. Yes, before I'd even begun reading, I had "baggage"; expectations of a certain standard of story-telling. Once the book was out, I heard a number of bad reviews. I was not put off, and I was not disappointed.

Pagford is a picturesque, parochial town with cobbled streets and quaint little cottages. Just beyond is the council estate, The Fields; a crime-ridden, concrete-crumbling embarrassment to the Pagford old guard. When Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving his seat in Pagford Parish Council open - a Casual Vacancy - old grudges break to new grievances. The council are divided by pro-Fielders and those who wish to see Pagford restored to its supposed former glory. It soon becomes clear, as the town's pretty façade begins to crack, that this division will inevitably lead to a disastrous conclusion.

This Dickensian approach, of telling the story of a town, rather than a character, is a marvellous example of just how good an author J.K. Rowling is. She weaves a rich tapestry of characters and situations together in a masterful and undeniably thought-provoking way. This story is told from the different perspectives of a number of complex personalities, young and old. For instance, you'll find yourself casting judgement on an individual; only to have your opinion receded by the next chapter. Gritty and controversial themes are explored throughout. It may not have the same "page-turner" appeal as her previous books, but it certainly leaves an imprint in the mind. I could go for days without picking this book up, but when I found time to read, I remembered exactly what had happened up to that point. This is great story-telling. I highly recommend this book, and eagerly await Rowling's next offering.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 6 July 2015
It's taken me a long time to actually get around to buying and reading The Casual Vacancy. I love the Harry Potter books so I had some reservations when it came to J.K. Rowling's first adult novel. What prompted me to actually read it was the series starting on TV, I wanted to read the book before I watched it (and I managed it, just!).

When it comes down to it you probably can't get much further away from Harry. You probably wouldn't even know that The Casual Vacancy was by the same author unless you're a Potter addict who can spot J.K's style t 100 pages. I can't help comparing to Potter but it's not really comparable. If you are looking for something with magic, or something exciting, or something fast paced you won't get it with The Casual Vacancy.

The Casual Vacancy, you see, is not plot driven, it barely has a plot at all to be perfectly honest. It is more of a study of the characters. That means that despite the characters being very flawed you come to care at least somewhat, even whilst not liking most of them. Probably the most likeable character was Kay, she cared, but she was weak. Krystal was probably the standout character though, at least for me. She was caustic, but I admired her (note admired, not liked). I can't imagine being friends with any of these people, but they are real.

It took me a long time to get into the book, you need to be prepared to wait, to take the time. There was enough to keep me going, until I realised that it was sort of like a soap (you know how in soaps there are no 'normal' families, they all have these 'issues'). I suppose it's meant to be a sort of 'you never know what goes on behind closed doors' type of thing, but it did put me off a little.

The ending hooked me though, one of those stay up for just one more paragraph/page/chapter type things. I hear that the TV series has changed the ending. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

A lot of people have criticised how much sex and bad language J.K has used in A Casual Vacancy. There is a lot, but I don't think it's completely unnecessary. People have been saying that it's J.K's way of saying she can write adult fiction. I think that makes her sound like a former child star who does a nude photo shoot to show that they are 'all grown up' (because of course becoming a woman automatically makes you a sex object). I don't see it like that. People swear, people have sex. Can it be realistic if you make it all family friendly? Life isn't always family friendly.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
J. K. Rowling’s first “adult book” certainly generated some interest. In its first week, it sold 124,000 copies in the UK and three times that in the USA. It also got a good kicking from some of the critics, and readers – after all, Rowling is quite a target. She is rich (worth about £620m, according to Sky News, though one wonders how they can know). She is massively successful as a writer and generates plenty of jealousy (another writer once accused her of “sucking the air” out of the market, apparently). She is politically on the left despite a massive fortune. Many critics, I am sure, would have liked this book to be rubbish; they could then wag their fingers and say, well, she’s a one-trick pony, isn’t she? All she can do is wizards really.

They must be disappointed. Rowling really is a good writer, and The Casual Vacancy is a good book. Whether it’s a very nice one is another question.

The Casual Vacancy is a portrait of Pagford, a small town in the West of England, said to be based on the one where Rowling grew up (she has never confirmed this). It begins with the death of a decent local councillor who has opposed attempts to shut down the town’s methadone clinic and to rid the town of responsibility for the local sink estate – “project”, in American parlance – called the Fields. The election that follows for the dead man’s council seat is the frame upon which Rowling has hung her portrait of the town’s people.

They fall into three basic categories: smug, ineffectual, and disgusting.

The smug include the conservative “first citizen” of Pagford, Council chairman Howard, a shop and cafe owner, 65 years old, of mighty girth and opinions; and his wife, Shirley. Like others in the town, they hanker after the company of the local aristocrats, although the latter are clearly bored by them, and indeed sold the land for the sink estate Howard wants to be rid of so much. The smug also include Howard’s son Miles, a solicitor (lawyer), who stands for the dead man’s council seat, and his wife Samantha, who has huge breasts and fantasizes about sex with a singer from her daughter’s favourite boy-band. And there’s Parminder, the doctor, who holds liberal views but makes no effort to communicate with her unattractive daughter and is unaware that the latter is quietly mutilating herself with a razor-blade in the night.

The ineffectual include Kay, a social worker who is deluding herself about her relationship with a man who doesn’t really want her; Colin, a deputy headmaster who lacks social skills and is mentally ill; and Ruth, a nurse who tries to be bright and jolly in a home dominated by a violent inadequate of a husband. The disgusting include Colin’s vile teenage son, who despises his parents and uses his wit and popularity to inflict cruelties on others; Simon, Ruth’s husband, who stands for the council hoping to get kickbacks; and Terri, a middle-aged junkie and occasional whore who lives on the sink estate but whose daughter Krystal could maybe be something better. Rowling uses Krystal as a dramatic cipher in a battle between good and evil.

Rowling serves up many characters – in fact, too many too quickly, so that the first half of the book is confusing. Yet she has got inside their heads, and shows us who they really are. Thus Howard dreams of the Pagford of his youth, where the poor grew runner beans and potatoes, and hates the Fields with its boarded-up windows, graffiti and satellite dishes. Miles and Samantha must entertain Kay and her reluctant partner to dinner and try to impress, though they have little in common with either; the evening that follows is pure agony – Abigail’s Party writ large. Parminder does not communicate with her daughter but half-knows it, and keeps meaning to try. Kay’s reluctant partner does know that, somewhere along the line, he should have ended the relationship. Colin’s horrible teenage son is determined to be “authentic” and does not know that he is just pretentious. Neither does he really know that he is vicious; in class, he mutters savage insults at Parminder’s miserable daughter, wanting to impress the friend next to him. He is unaware that his friend finds the girl’s pain discomfiting.

Not every character works so well. Colin’s mental illness does not convince; it is so dramatic that one does not see how he functions at all. The crooked, violent Simon is just too without redeeming features. As for Terri, the tragic junkie, she is a type that exists, to be sure, but seems too obvious to be here. She might have seemed more real, and sympathetic, had she been one of those who do manage their addiction better.

The book ends with a tragedy that a number of the characters might have prevented, either earlier in the book, or in the hour or so before it happened. Several people get their comeuppance, for this or other reasons. In fact, the book is, for all its satirical modernity, a very old-fashioned morality play that, with a slight change of characters and messages, could have come from someone on the right as much as the left.

That’s a point that clearly went over the head of the Daily Mail’s reviewer, who called it “500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature”. The council chairman, Howard, is “middle class, so, of course, he is a racist, pompous twit”. Ms Rowling is, says the reviewer, “on a mission to portray the poor underclasses as plucky but blighted, and the British middle classes as a lumpen mass of the mad and the bad.” The Mail had an agenda; it usually has. Actually, Rowling could just as easily have been slammed for failing to include normal balanced working-class characters rather than the awful Terri. But the charge is not totally unfounded. Even the progressive Independent said: “The snobbishness and hypocrisy of the Pagford residents is held up for mild satire throughout, while the deprivation of the Fields is played with a straight bat, and that unevenness of tone rankles.”

I won’t pretend I found this book a life-affirming experience. It’s a very cynical view of life; the fact is that most people are nicer than The Casual Vacancy would have you believe, in England as much as anywhere else. I also have a certain distaste for English people who leg it north of the border (Rowling lives in Soctland) and then drone on about how ghastly the English are. One wonders, in fact, what the Scots think of them.

Even so, I think some of the criticism of this book, and of Rowling, has been unfair. She has some prejudices; well, she is scarcely alone in that. She could have stopped working, shut up and enjoyed her vast wealth. Or she could have trotted out any old trash, knowing that, with her name on it, it would at least sell a few copies. Or she could, like many British novelists of the last half-century, have written genteel novels about middle-class marital difficulties. Or books about food for people who already eat too much; or she could have restored a farmhouse in some fashionably unfashionable part of France or Spain and then written an amusing book patronising the local peasants.

Instead, she is, as one says nowadays, “engaged”; she has painted a vivid, well-written warts-and-all portrait of modern Britain. To be sure, she has majored on the warts; but, well, there are a few, aren’t there? Some of the characters, it’s true, don’t come off – but others do, and the book is a genuine page-turner. The Casual Vacancy is not always an attractive book, and it is not always just. But it’s a gutsy attempt to write about the way we English are in 2013. And any doubts as to whether Rowling can do “adult” books should be dispelled forever.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I have scanned through some of the reviews on here and am astonished by the negativity.

Yes, this is a scathing indictment of society. Yes, the large cast of characters are - in the main - unpleasant with little or no redeeming features. This is not chick lit.

Many of the reviewers seem to have expected an adult Harry Potter-esque tale. To future readers, I would say "put your preconceptions to one side, forget that this is the author who had the brilliance to invent the world of Harry Potter, and approach this as if it is a book written by someone you have never heard of. Give it a chance, stick with it and you will be rewarded for your perseverance."

The book is expertly written and, as the reasons for the behaviour of the characters are slowly revealed, JKR gradually peels away layers, exposing their history and thought processes.

This is not a book I could describe as enjoyable, but I couldn't put it down. It has the same fascination as an accident, at which you cannot stop yourself from staring.

This is an immensely satisfying read and the denouement will stay with me for some time. I have been turning the final outcome - which is somehow both predictable, but a shock at the same time - over and over in my head, picking at it like a scab. Any book that can provoke me like this and drive me to write a review is definitely worth reading.

Incidentally, I read this on my Kindle and didn't notice the numerous editorial errors, which some reviewers have complained about. I have been known to put a book to one side, never to pick it up again, when irritated by sloppy editing - so future readers can be assured that any really bad errors have been corrected.
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348 of 389 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2012
The casual vacancy.
J.K.Rowling

I may be unusual amongst reviewers of J.K.Rowling's latest book in that I have never read a Harry Potter story, not being drawn to the celebration of public schools, nor to fantasy stories of wizards and dragons (nor to Tolkien, Wagner, or model railways, but that's another story).

Here we have a further iteration of the English village novel, but in this version not a celebration of the genre, nor of the people or their manners. It is more a full frontal assault on the complacency, hypocrisy , selfishness, narrow-mindedness and sheer unpleasantness of the great majority of the inhabitants of Pagford, somewhere not far from Bristol. I have to confess that for long parts of this book I asked myself the question 'why bother?' Why does the author bother to skewer these people so relentlessly, what animus drives her to spend so much time and effort revealing their nastiness as if we didn't recognise it already? Settling scores? And if so, do we need to be there?

But, and there is a but, JKR brings forward some characters who are rarely encountered, and insists we notice them. Most notable is Krystal, school age daughter of a drug addict, resident of a 'sink estate' as other people in the village would term it, foul mouthed, sexually promiscuous, and the carer of her 3 year old brother. She is both brave and desperately in need of affection. Krystal is one of a range of teenage characters who JKR is able to present persuasively, as if from the inside. Others include Sukhinder, a self-harming Sikh girl, from the only Asian family in the village; Andrew whose crush on Gaia is brought to life with complete conviction, and who brings back vivid memories for the non-teenage reader; Gaia herself, exiled from London by her single parent mother's move from Hackney, privileged by good looks but enraged by her mother's unpleasant boyfriend; and 'Fats', whose lacerating wit covers his unhappy home and hatred of his father. The families that these young people live in are mercilessly exposed by JKR as nests of mutual dislike, infidelity, backstabbing and cruelty. Did Harry Potter go to boarding school? No wonder.

And of the adults only Val the social worker, Parminder the doctor and just possibly Colin the teacher with OCD come out, despite severe personal challenges, as having any sympathetic treatment at all.

There is a problem with the sympathetic treatment, and of its more dominant opposite, contempt. Rowling's authorial presence dominates the narrative, imposing moral judgement, left and right. The narrative is manipulated like a children's story to deliver punishment to the wicked, and then to the innocent as well. Grimness is all. JKR is a moralist who has not yet wholly learned to reveal rather than instruct. At the same time, while most of us walk away from the pain of others- it challenges our own wellbeing and threatens to make demands - JKR walks towards it.

By the end of the book this reader did care, in particular about the children for whom JKR has a special insight, and for the poor, who are so completely p******d on by the comfortably off. There is a wellspring of compassion in this author that is welcome in the world of contemporary fiction. While JKR has joined the super-rich in terms of wealth, she has not joined them in terms of attitude. She does not have to write, unlike in her earlier days as a single parent living on benefits, and is brave to set out after Harry Potter to stake a new claim. I hope she does so again, as she has something to tell us.

Alan Tait
October 2012
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115 of 130 people found the following review helpful
on 27 March 2013
Must say I do not agree with the majority of professional book reviewers who have slated this. I found this book witty, gritty and an authentic insight into the day to day life of a middle England, wannabe posh rural community. Where the author has got it so right is how believable the characters are. From the bored middle aged housewife to the angst ridden spotty teenager and inbetween. All have their qualities and faults and all are authentic. Certainly not a feel good story but realistic and enjoyable.
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195 of 222 people found the following review helpful
on 4 October 2012
Many reviewers of this book who have been disappointed have primarily objected to the length, tone, or message of the story, or else complained about the dissimilarity to Harry Potter.

Actually, it is a very uplifting book. True, it depicts many of the problems in our society, very vividly and very well, which might be unsettling. But more importantly JK Rowling shows how a single person's contribution to other people's happiness can be so great: the death of Fairbrother demonstrates how many people he was helping in his local society and what a difference he was making. That seems to me more a message of hope than despair, that people can make a difference and it is very worthwhile trying to do so.

It is most impressive that JK Rowling, flush with success, did not decide to take the easy option and write another Harry Potter story with guaranteed sales and film rights. That would have been the easy option and guaranteed success whatever the reviewers might say. Instead she used her position to actually make a serious and powerful contribution by writing about the society we live in and how that can be improved. She's following in a great tradition of authors who have now been recognised for the value of their commentary: Dickens, Trollope etc.

It's a well written, powerful book. It isn't for those who would prefer to close their doors and imagine all is well with the world, but I would bet this book will be seen retrospectively as a turning point that compelled early 21st century society to confront itself and to achieve more.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2015
It took me a while to get into the story, I give you that. Not because I expected it to be like H. Potter at all. I never did. I did expect the level of writing to be on that level, which is what I got, because an author either has a unique style or perishes, and J.K. Rowling definitely has a unique style, and I love it (even when Robert Galbraith takes over). There are lines in her books that stay with us forever.

It took me a while to get into the story because it is exactly what it is - a tapestry of small-town politicians weaving their petty power struggles at the expense of the rest of us. I could see it all from the very beginning, the delicate descriptions of mannerisms and appearances, the way her characters talk, how they interpret facts. What I had been hoping for was that it would be a satire, more humour and cynicism, and far less reality. But great books don't always give us what we want and hope for. They give us what we need.

There is nothing casual about Casual Vacancy. Strange marriages of interest, social differences, slum suburbs, measly narrow-minded souls scheming, teenagers struggling to get out of the grim pattern of drug and sexual abuse they were born into, sad and tragic attempts at true love... all muggles, no magic, just the grim side of life, if we do nothing about it. And it makes you want to do something about it - makes you want to smack the living daylights out of some people, hug some people and tell them it will be all right... People, you see? Not characters, because they are.

You may find yourself setting the book aside to let some moments sink in and to settle your mind. There are scenes you will see too clearly and close your eyes to them. But the book will call you back. Once you cross the first third of the book, you will devour it. Once you finish reading, it will be one of those books that will leave you staring into blank space, breathing deeply. Every single detail in the book finds its place, every single person has a role, every single event sinks into place. J.K. Rowling is a master in this - things always fall into place. No spoilers here, but beware of the role of the lost computer as you flip the final pages! I still choke up and it's been quite a while since I read the book.

Bowing to the mastery. Truly am. It takes gutts to write a book people may not like or appreciate. True authors do that. They write stories out of them, for better or worse. She did.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 17 July 2015
At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.

It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.

Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.

Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.
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