As I mentioned in my previous post, I had high hopes for J. K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy; my hopes were not unfounded. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Rowling’s story over the past few weeks. For me this book seems to have been the catalyst for a return to a more fulfilling style of reading. I think I have, for some time now, been stuck in a bit of a rut where my reading is concerned – not able to find as much enjoyment in it as I used to and frustrated by my inability to become engrossed in the books I was reading. Not so with The Casual Vacancy, I read it almost every day and thought about its characters and events when I wasn’t reading it.
As I’ve already mentioned in this blog, I’m a huge fan of Rowling’s Harry Potter books and have read them many times. You can imagine, then, how I approached The Casual Vacancy with tentative fingers and an almost desperate hope that this book would be as rewarding a read. I wasn’t sure how many comparisons I would be able to draw between Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, and while the plots and setting are vastly different, there are comparisons to be made. The narrative style of Harry Potter is still clearly discernible in Rowling’s latest offering. The narrative voice has the same nuances and the characterisation is not wholly dissimilar. Both novels also depict contemporary British society and its many facets and factions.
Prior to reading I’d wondered exactly how much of an adult novel The Casual Vacancy would prove to be, suffice to say this is definitely a book for the adult market and not something you would expect to see in the hands of a child or even young adult. This is a story about the complex issues that weave their ways in and out of our contemporary adult world. Just as the Harry Potter books deftly depict the politics of a secondary school and teenage years, so The Casual Vacancy brings the politics of suburban Britain to the fore.
While reading The Casual Vacancy it struck me that there are, it seems to me, parallels to be drawn between Rowling’s Pagford and the rural country settings depicted in Jane Austen’s novels. Sure, Rowling’s story takes a wider sweep of society, showing us people from all walks of life; but, to me, there is something decidedly Austen-like about The Casual Vacancy. I think the similarity, for me, lies in the characterisation and in the intense focus on the minutiae of everyday life within a tight-knit community. Both authors have their settings under a finely-tuned microscope, examining the merits, faults and vices of their characters with almost ruthless fidelity.
As I said above, I truly enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy, the pace of the story is spot on, never becoming tedious or speeding by too fast. The characters provoke strong interest: some have you rooting for them, others fill you with disgust and others claim your pity. There is a whole gamut of emotions to be experienced in the reading of this book. It takes you on a rollercoaster with every chapter. As you would expect, Rowling’s characters are fully fleshed out human beings, with vivid pasts, strong motivations and very real lives. From a drug-addled mother dependent upon her teenage daughter to keep the social worker at bay, to a gossiping middle-class housewife obsessed with her reflection in society’s mirror…there is a whole spectrum of society exhibited for your reading pleasure.
I feel Rowling has very expertly put her finger on a pulse with this novel. Living, as I do, amongst a very similar (if slightly larger) community in the east of England, I feel that this is perhaps the only book I have ever read which depicts the type of society in which I live with almost unerring accuracy. Rowling really has presented a very honest and very vivid picture of contemporary Britain. The many layers of society are peeled away with the confident hand of an author who knows her setting well. It is also refreshing not to find a wholly idealised vision of Britain. Too often we are greeted with images of Richard Curtis’ Britain. Quaint country idylls where life is moneyed, on track and everything charming. Failing that, we find Britain depicted with a grimy, gritty kitchen-sink realism. It’s refreshing to see an artist such as Rowling, take a more heads-on approach and show Britain for what it so often is…a complicated, interwoven mesh of old and new, rich and poor, with varying family structures and a plethora of races and religions all living alongside one another.
I would definitely recommend The Casual Vacancy, with the caution that it is by no means a happy feel-good successor to Harry Potter. In fact, it is a real heartwrencher of a novel, with many deeply touching narratives and several moments that are hard to read. The Casual Vacancy leaves you pondering your own life and the lives of those you come into contact with in your community, whether that be through work, socially or in passing in the street. Rowling’s novel forces you to face up to the prejudices and injustices in your own society by seeing them mirrored before you on the page. It also touches upon the changing face of Britain’s towns and villages and the politics of daily life in our communities.
It’s my opinion that Rowling has made the transition from children’s literature to an adult readership with flair and grace. I, like a great many others, wait with anticipation to see what she will do next.
Having read and reviewed its predecessors, I move on to the third of Nancy Mitford’s companion novels, The Blessing.