The Quality Vacancy: A Review of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy
This is my review of The Casual Vacancy. ADULT CONTENT ADULT CONTENT ADULT CONTENT!!! Trying to keep it spoiler-free, as best I can.
Okay, I don’t even know how to start. I wanted to like this book so badly. I REALLY wanted to like it. And I was convinced that I would. Whenever anyone voiced doubts about the book, I would reply defiantly, “Has Jo ever let us down yet?” Sure, this book would be very different from Harry – it would be adult, and realistic, and all that. But surely anything Jo wrote would be good? I’ve read adult books, I’ve read realistic books. Let me just reiterate that I really really wanted to like this book.
Now, might as well address the erumpent in the room: this book just isn’t very good. I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed by a work of fiction. I feel like I just found out Santa isn’t real.
But the reason why it’s not very good, that’s what really shocked me. Leaving aside plot and characters and all that (which I suppose could subjectively be considered good or bad), there is the inescapable fact that this book just isn’t well-written. This is the last possible complaint I thought I could have about any book of Jo’s – her writing is some of the best ever. So I really don’t know what happened this time around.
What is the first tip about writing that I learned in sixth grade? DO NOT SWITCH PERSPECTIVES. This is a no-brainer. If I’m writing about Bobby’s point of view, I can’t switch to Billy’s point of view randomly. It’s disorienting and ineffective, and every single writer knows not to do this. And this is what Jo does!
This book is written in omniscient third person, but Jo clearly feels comfortable doing limited third person. So she tries to have her cake and eat it too. Therefore, we get jarring insights into different characters’ minds halfway through a passage. This is clumsy, and it’s especially confusing when you’re being introduced to an enormous barrage of characters.
What I don’t get is that it’s not like Jo doesn’t know how to write in omniscient third person. There are three instances of it in the Potter books: the latter half of “The Boy Who Lived” (SS1), “Spinner’s End” (HBP2), and “Dark Lord Ascending” (DH1). And all of these are written extremely well. As are the parts written in limited third person, be it from the perspective of Frank Bryce (“The Riddle House,” GF1), John Major (“The Other Minister,” HBP1), or Harry Potter (the rest of the series, obviously).
If Jo wanted to take us inside the heads of different characters, she should break it up by section, with headings stating the character whose point of view we’re in. It’s not like this is a novel concept – just look at Michael Scott’s Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, for example. Or, if you want a more enjoyable read, Rick Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus.
But this issue goes further. Even if Jo had formatted this properly, there’s the overwhelming amount of characters. We jump into the heads of well over a dozen characters right away, who all make references to other characters. This is further complicated by the copious nicknames involved. How does Jo expect us to understand who all these characters are right off the bat? Perhaps she has forgotten, in the years since Potter, that introducing characters is supposed to be a gradual process? I’m still a bit fuzzy on who some minor characters are after finishing the book. If she’s going to lob a town’s worth of characters at us, at least have a glossary of them or something so we can keep track. I care even less about the characters if I don’t know whom I’m reading about.
Before I get into the adult content of the book, let me just say that I’m no prude. I go to college in New York City, I’m not exactly a stranger to profanity or vulgarity, nor to discussion of sexual things. I’ve read adult books about such things and enjoyed them. Also, the complaints in this section appeal mostly to Part 1 of the book, which is far and away the worst – the rest of the book slowly progressed from dreadful to passable.
One of the things that we all loved about Harry Potter was the wealth of detail. Jo’s attention to the minutiae of the wizarding world made it come alive for us. Unfortunately, her eye for detail, while splendid for describing a fantasy world, is not as pleasant describing other things. For instance, “lying […] in a pool of his own vomit” (page 5); the paragraph devoted to sagging breasts (page 8); or the long paragraph devoted to a penis’s lack of functionality due to the folds of an obese stomach (page 32). Quite frankly, I think I could have led a happy life without ever reading the above three descriptions. I don’t see the literary value added.
There is a place for talking about breasts and genitalia – when it’s relevant to the story. When Andrew is crushing on Gaia, phrases like “an ache in his heart and in his balls” (page 22) are perfectly welcome. When there’s no context, there’s really no need.
I find the swearing less objectionable, but I do think that Jo went a bit overboard with that as well. We get it, the Weedons have potty-mouths (along with many other characters). I think after a page of dialogue that contained more F-bombs than not, the point was driven home. It took me out of the story, trying to actually figure out what they were saying through the swearwords.
All these things do get better after Part 1 – perhaps Jo thought she had made her impression, that we all now believed she was an adult writer. As it was, I wish she hadn’t tried so hard to prove herself – I think if the heavy themes hadn’t impressed upon us the adultness of the story, things like the rape scene would have.
Now that I’ve torn apart the writing style, let’s talk about the actual content of the story. I’ll start with the characters.
My oh my, but there are a lot of characters. That’s fine – there were lots of characters in Harry Potter, and that was one of the best things about it. But there’s a key difference: where most of the Potter characters were likable, just about none of the characters in this book are. It’s a town full of detestable people. And jumping perspectives from one horrible person to another does not make me care about any of them. I ended up barely invested in any of them.
Perhaps Jo was going for a Wuthering Heights effect, where you read about horrible people with detachment and don’t mind their suffering. Except the writing makes it seem like we’re supposed to empathize with the characters… and that’s just not happening.
This heading has a question mark, because I’m still not certain there was one at all. I suppose the thing about filling Barry’s seat could qualify as a plot, though that emerged only halfway through the book and fizzled out for the most part. The struggle about the Fields could be considered a plot, though it’s written like a subplot. And none of the other stories occurring seemed very plot-like either.
For an analogy, imagine reading a book that talked about SPEW, and Buckbeak’s execution, and Ludo Bagman’s gambling addiction. Sure, they’re tenuously connected because they bump into each other once or twice. But without Harry vs Voldemort as the series’ central storyline, it would be a feeble book, wouldn’t it?
I imagined, upon reading the book summary, that Barry’s death would cause a vacancy on the council, and the squabbling over the vacancy would throw a town into chaos. Instead, I get a town that’s already horribly off, and it’s all marginally connected because everyone knew Barry or knew of him.
Essentially, this book is a town full of awful people, and we get five hundred pages of them being horrible to each other and gossiping about each other. Which would all have been a delightful backdrop to a story, but it does not constitute an actual plot. Maybe Jo just had all these ideas floating in her head and decided to try and combine them into a novel, in lieu of just writing short stories about them. And they would have been interesting stories, I suspect, if they were not interspersed with all the waffle of them gossiping about each other.
So to wrap up, this book is poorly written, full of vile characters, and lacking a plot. I really cannot think up anything to recommend this book.
Put it this way: I spent two weeks in a row staying up until 3am rereading Harry Potter for the thirteenth time. I didn’t bother opening this book outside of my subway commutes, not until the last hundred pages or so, when it became marginally interesting as the many conflicts reached a head (not that there was much in the way of resolution for any of them). It was a chore to finish, and if it had been written by anyone else, I would not have bothered.
I’ve talked to other people about the book, in the vain hope that it would get good at some point, or that at least someone was enjoying it. I’ve yet to find anyone who had something good to say. It’s been rather like high school, where my entire class was forced to read Shakespeare or something, and people would grudgingly talk about how they couldn’t wait to be done. And this is perhaps most disappointing of all, that unlike Pottermore or the HP movies, no one seems to be enjoying this.
It’s not that I think Jo is a bad writer now (though I no longer deem her infallible). I think that the constraints Harry Potter placed on her – one point of view, mostly suitable for children, etc. – made her writing good. Without any self-imposed filters (because, let’s face it, what editor would tell Jo Rowling that her book is bad?), she went unchecked, and produced this.
I think I’ll go return my copy of the book to Barnes & Noble, because there isn’t a chance in hell I’ll reread this – struggling through it once was enough. I would not recommend reading this. If you’ve started, go ahead and finish it, because it does get better as it goes on – it just never gets good enough to warrant starting in the first place.
I scarcely need to say how upset I am by all of this, and how badly I wanted to love this book. But perhaps it was just a fluke, and I’ll have faith that Jo’s next book will be better.