An ‘adult’ adult novel: a review of The Casual Vacancy

Their reward for enduring the awful experience was the right to tell people about it.

The Casual VacancyMany of us don’t bother with age labels when selecting a book. After all, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is filed under children’s books but engages all types. We like what we like.

While Harry Potter can suit anyone, Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is designed to target adults — readers who can handle large amounts of mature content. Rowling interprets a literal meaning from the term “adult novel,” writing as crudely as she can by tossing in a great cast of characters that allows her to broach as many issues as possible: adultery, molestation, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, bullying, sexual deviation, homosexuality, physical abuse, depression, racial prejudice, and so on. The list is a long one.

It’s almost like she set out to prove she’s more than a children’s author. She seems to say, “I can be nasty. I can be dirty. I’m not so fragile.”

Once readers move past how weird that is and how hard Rowling tries to be vulgar in the beginning parts of the book, the novel becomes a poignant examination of society’s hypocrisy and the complexities of human nature. Every character has problems, but most of them derive from misunderstandings — from failing to communicate and listen. These people are self-involved and can’t imagine that anyone has it as bad as they do, but everyone does.

It’s hard not to judge these characters even when you’re condemning them for judging others. Rowling arguably provides the best commentary about this through the character Terri Weedon — a drug addict, whore, and poor excuse for a mother. We only think we know these characters until Rowling offers us a different perspective.

Everyone is at war — with each other and mostly with themselves. This isn’t a happy book. Rowling’s subtle observations of human tendencies are painfully frank. After listening to an unconventional choice of music at a funeral, for instance, “the congregation filed slowly out of the church, trying not to walk in time to the beat of the song.” The Casual Vacancy is full of these little revealing moments about our social insecurities.

The book reaches just over 500 pages, but the more you read, the more it swallows you whole and demands your attention. The pain these characters suffer is intolerable; you feel their fury and their shame, and it makes you root for the worst of them. You want them to fix their lives.

Not all ends well, but from tragedy springs forth a kind of poetic justice and truce for many — husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and enemies. The “resolution” (truer to real life than to perfect, fairytale endings) makes you a little more hopeful, and for once, you can see “a prettiness about Pagford,” a town built on gossip, small-mindedness, and solidarity.

I can’t recommend it enough. And if it still bothers you, just pretend Rowling didn’t write it.

Grade: A

6 thoughts on “An ‘adult’ adult novel: a review of The Casual Vacancy

  1. Interesting. This is one of the few positive reviews I’ve seen for this book. Sometimes, it’s obvious that the negative review is based on the fact that JK Rowling wrote a novel other than Harry Potter, but other reviews would probably be the same even if the author were someone else. I’m probably not going to read it because I see enough of “society’s hypocrisy and the complexities of human nature” in my line of work. I read to get away from it.

  2. Very much agreed. I think much of the negative reactions came from expectations. The book itself is very good though a bit rough in its opening characters, when Rowling is introducing all the characters (there are a lot of them, and it’s hard at first to keep them straight). But the book comes together well.

    I don’t blame you for wanting to avoid this one. The Casual Vacancy is crude, and it’s a heavy book. Even though it’s good (IMO), I know that’s not for everyone. My boyfriend has been trying to get me to read Never Let Me Go, which he says is amazing but SUPER depressing, and I just don’t want to — not since I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which put me through that exact same experience.

  3. In my opinion you can see the same kind of understanding of human nature in the Harry Potter books, I’m always amazed how she makes her characters believable and there is such hidden depths in her writing even in those books that children won’t grasp, It feels natural to me that she expands upon that core in her writing style, that while writing a book for adults, and while I haven’t read the book I’d reckon that’s the case there too.

  4. I felt much the same way you did about this book and I’m glad to see such a positive review. It’s not perfect but I found it a really powerful read. I especially liked Rowling’s portrayal of the teenage characters. And I liked that most of the characters had some redeeming qualities, despite the overwhelming darkness of the book.

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