Review: Bitter, harrowing and very different to Harry Potter… I love it.

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I finished this book a few weeks ago and I’ve only just got around to writing the review now. I’m going to go straight to the point and say that I loved the novel. I love the Harry Potter series and was worried I wouldn’t enjoy Rowling’s first book for adults, but it surprised me. Of course I didn’t enjoy it as much as Harry Potter [it lacks the warmth of the Potter books, and just doesn’t have that charm], but I found it was an intriguing read that kept me avidly reading until the end. Set within a typically English countryside in ‘the pretty little town of Pagford’, the novel studies the normal, everyday lives of its inhabitants. By doing so however, Rowling exposes the facade of the seemingly idyllic town. Dainty jam and pastry shops and cute, cobbled streets serve to hide the vicious antagonism, hypocrisy, snobbery and ugly racism that lies at the core of the lives of the middle class.

Rowling’s critique of Pagford’s inhabitants starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a generous, kind-hearted man who is well-known within the small town.  Originally a member of Pagford Parish Council, his death creates a ‘casual vacancy’, setting the stage for the town’s relentless plots and schemes over who is to take his place. Middle class snobbery becomes clear over the fight to win Barry’s seat, as the relocation of the Fields [a run-down council estate] becomes the focus of the election. To assign the Fields to the nearby city of Yarvil would mean to shirk responsibility and completely disregard drug-addicted inhabitants, who, according to Pagfordians, taint the town’s reputation. One of the councilors for this change is Howard Mollison, an obese man who runs the town’s delicatessen and is determined for his own son Miles to take Barry’s seat.

The election becomes increasingly heated when an anonymous writer under the pseudonym ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’, posts accusations against those standing on the council website. As the novel progresses, Pagford quickly becomes embroiled in horror, paranoia and gossip, a hotbed of uncertainty over who will be exposed to the public eye next. Each character is expertly weaved within the lives of others so that true to life, everyone knows each other and it is not safe to trust anybody.

From domestic to sexual abuse, violence, sex and hate are topics that spiral out of control between parents and children and unhappy couples, to culminate in a devastating twist at the end of the narrative. A gritty and brutal critique of the British class system, with vivid characters and a lot of dark humour. Often harrowing, shocking and unsettling, Rowling brings us a world that the Howard Mollisons of society desperately try to hide away, forcing us to look and take some responsibility.

Since its publication only last month, The Casual Vacancy has unleashed outrage from the right wing. The Daily Mail’s Jan Moir called it ‘a socialist manifesto masquerading as literature’, while The Telegraph’s Charles Moore angrily asserted that Rowling looks down on the provincial England that made her. For someone who is unhappy with the way things are now run in England, I certainly have my own views on the politics that are so bold in Rowling’s narrative; but I don’t really want to talk about that. It’s about the writing and the story itself, not the politics. Another entirely different response to the book which I read in an article was that Sikh leaders in India are angry at the portrayal of Sukhvinder, a young Sikh girl who is teased in the book for her facial hair.

It seems that The Casual Vacancy has provoked anger or protest in some way from many different groups, which has only made the novel more interesting and unconventional- and one of the reasons I suggest that you read it.

Rating: 4/5

Do I recommend you to read it? Definitely. If you’re looking for the magic and warmth of the Harry Potter series then you won’t find it here, but its sharp social critique made it a gripping read. Rowling may not be the best writer in the world- yes there are a few sloppy metaphors here and there and the stereotypical language of the lower class gets a bit annoying- but it is a wonderfully crafted story that deserves a read.

Genre: comedy/ tragedy/ satire