The last post this blog will produce will be a review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy,” which was the first book Rowling wrote after the Harry Potter series. Like most people, I adored the HP books and I was curious to see what Rowling had written about in her first effort since writing that phenomenon, especially since it wouldn’t involve witches or magic this time. And what made me REALLY curious was that when I ordered this book on Amazon, I saw that it had a rating of only 3.1 out of 5, which, for an author with an enormous fan base, is an extraordinarily low score. Even marginal writers can get a rating of at least a 3.5 on Amazon, so for J.K. Rowling of all people to have a score this low… it intrigued me. Something had to be wrong with this book, for so many of her own fans to dislike it.
And so, with that intrigue, I decided to read The Casual Vacancy, and what I’ll tell you is this: it’s an extremely well-written book, and it has an interesting story, but this was one of the most negative, depressing stories I’ve ever read in my life. Reading about natural disasters would have been more fun.
The story is set in a small English borough called Pagford, where a local council member just died, and now a bunch of people are fighting over his seat. It’s an incredibly small town where everyone knows each other, and in the story, the way one person reacts to another person in the town has a butterfly effect, where the smallest actions essentially alter the shape of the upcoming election for the one guy’s seat. And that part is all well and good. The problem is that everyone in the story has a problem. Every single couple is having marital issues, where both the man and the woman are woefully unhappily; there are at least three or four different affairs going on; there’s murder; there’s suicide; there’s rape; there’s hints of incest; one girl is living in a crack house; another girl is cutting herself and is getting bullied; the semi-main protagonist teenager guy gets assaulted regularly by his father; there are three, count ’em, THREE different funerals in this story. And I haven’t even gotten to the most morbid part of the story, which comes at the very end — which I won’t spoil, but just imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen in a story like this, and voila, it totally happens.
It’s just too much. It’s overwhelming, because everyone in the story is either an unlikeable prick or they’re being put through the ringer, with no hope in sight. This was not a pleasant book to read. I gotta admit, every time I came away from reading this, I found that I was in a terribly depressed mood. I felt like the therapist in The Watchmen, who after counseling Rorscach decided that he hated the world and that life was hopeless. That’s not the feeling that I want to come away with when I get done with recreational reading.
All this isn’t to say that The Casual Vacancy is a bad book, because it isn’t… sort of. J.K. Rowling is a master at understanding teenagers and making them feel like real people — whereas all too often, writers make teenagers sound like overly-brooding, existentially-concerned assholes. The teenagers in this story feel real, and so do the rest of the characters. But, there’s just too many catastrophes in this story, and the positives get lost in it all. Some of the terrible events don’t even seem to have much of a point to the story; we really didn’t need to hear about the girl cutting herself, for instance.
So, what I would say is that if you’re interested in an incredibly-depressing story that gets more, and more, and more unpleasant to read, to the point that you’ll want to take a cold shower when you’re done reading it, then I’d say The Casual Vacancy is right up your alley, because it is very well written. Unfortunately, that’s just not the type of story that interests me, and I doubt it will interest very many people either. And so, to general readers, I would say that you’re probably better off not reading this book, which I hate to write, because I am a massive fan of Rowling’s work. But… there’s only so much depression you can withstand from a fictional story before you’re going to start to resent the source material, and it crossed that line for me.