The casual vacancy

The casual vacancy / J.K. Rowling

I have to be honest: I’ve been putting this review off for quite a while. I’m not really sure why. I’ve known pretty much all along what I wanted to say about this one, so hereit is.

The casual vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s big post-Harry Potter novel. It’s almost completely unolike Harry Potter – it’s firmly grounded in the Muggle world, and it’s definitely written with an adult audience in mind. Still, it retains the strong social conscience of the Harry Potter books.

Brief plot summary

Pagford, a stereotypically lovely English town. A member of the local parish council suddenly drops dead. The attempt to elect a replacement for Barry Fairbrother will reveal the many deep-seated divisions hidden behind the seemingly idyllic surface of Pagford.

So how is it?

It’s a pretty scathing satire, and worth reading if (and this is a big if) you come to it with the right frame of mind.

The casual vacancy is not Harry Potter.

Comparing it to Harry Potter will only end in tears.

That being said, they both are modern versions of “classic” English genres.* The Harry Potter series is at its core an English boarding-school novel. The casual vacancy is more of a dark comedy of manners, exploring the cruelty and prejudice that underly so-called “respectability”.

*I have no real expertise or training in English Literature so this is mostly cobbled together from my own experience with a little dash of me parroting things I’ve heard others say.

 

I’ve herad a lot of people complain about how dark The casual vacancy is, that Rowling was including “adult” content simply to prove that she could write for an older audience. I didn’t find it gratuitous at all, personally. Yes, Rowling explores the depths of human cruelty fairly explicitly, but the book is so thematically tight that I never thought it was gratuitous.

The other major complaint I’ve heard is that it’s not particularly exciting. That’s certainly true, and while there is definitely humor therein it’s not exactly The importance of being Ernest. This is bone-dry English satire, and the book is structured like one of those dreadfully boring novels that the wealthier inhabitants of Pagford probably love.

So, while it’s certainly not perfect (it’s so dry that reading it does require some effort)it’s still a good book and fairly worthwhile. While I lack much of the cultural context to fully grasp the full extent of what’s going on, I enjoyed the book. The casual vacancy makes some very sharp points about how “respectability” is essentially a mask for racism and classism, and how society (British society specifically) completely fails to provide support or even encouragement to people who aren’t sufficiently “respectable”. As a result, it’s kind of a rough read, but I thought it was still enjoyable and it certainly has an impact.

Recommendation

I’m going to do something a little different here. Instead of doing books for my cross-recommendations, since this isn’t really a genre where I have much experience, I’m going to use movies instead.
The angels’ share – I LOVE this movie. It’s a bit hard to classify, as it’s really two movies in one: a goofy comedy about a group of societal misfits and an incredibly dark, gritty story about people struggling to make ends meet in contemporary Glasgow. As a result, it’s almost certainly not for everyone: there are some scenes of brutal violence, but for all that it’s still a funny, optimistic tale.  The violence is really concentrated towards the early parts of the film, and the last act is pure entertainment.  Like The casual vacancy, the violence never feels gratuitous and it’s distinctly uncomfortable.
Hot fuzz – I fell asleep the first time I saw this movie, only waking up for the over the top action extravaganza of the finale. I’ve since rewatched it several times, and it’s actually a pretty astute satire. More sophomoric than The casual vacancy, to be sure, but it addresses a lot of the same issues about people who are willing to sacrifice almost anything to keep their reputations clean. Having lived in Naperville, I can definitely identify.

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