Who read The Casual Vacancy by famed British author J K Rowling? I certainly did! It was her first post-Harry Potter novel and caused quite a stir. I worked in library services at the time so I helped shelve this hardback hundreds of times. Fortunately the cover was so bright (and the original publication rather big) it was always easy to locate for prospective readers. Actually the book did not stay shelved for long, there were so many on the waiting list clambering to read it.
The Casual Vacancy was written under Rowling’s real name prior to publication of her Cormoran Strike detective series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Don’t ask me why, it didn’t fool anyone. I do remember penning a scathing review of Lethal White the fourth book in that series.
In 2015, The Casual Vacancy was made into a British TV three-part miniseries. Directed by Jonny Campbell, scripted by Sarah Phelps, and starred Michael Gambon, Julia McKenzie, Emelia Fox, and others I recognised from sit-coms, but unfortunately never got to see. Actually this production may not have reached Australian television screens. By all accounts, viewers were outraged by the changed ending, giving rise to the old saying ‘the book is always better’.
Now, without further ado, I present—
my original book review (previously published on a now-defunct book readers website) hopefully without spoilers—
The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling 2012
Reviewed by Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2013
Quote “It was a brilliant piece of marketing strategy to publish this J K Rowling book prior to her (subsequently more popular) detective novel ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’. What better way to heighten interest and arouse social consciousness than her very first post-Potter novel. A long-awaited book, The Casual Vacancy is liked and loathed in equal measure but disliked more for the content than the writing – even though we’ve probably read similar books and met people similar to those in Pagford. I think the pace is well-crafted, the voice and sense-of-place are beautifully brought to life, tinged with the graveness of a modern-day Dickens.
“The characters are an inglorious burst of humanity, almost, but not quite, edging towards insanity. Indeed, most of the characters appear average but through various twists and turns the families in Pagford and the Fields are slowly stripped of their protective veneers and laid bare, exposing their ugliness beneath. Nothing is sacred and all manner of collective disorders appear from young and old alike as their every move is documented, every word faithfully recorded. We see the truths and witness the unveiling of secrets, motivated by revenge via website hacking.
“As we know from the blurb, the book kicks in with the death of Barry Fairbrother who arrives at the golf club for dinner with his wife on their wedding anniversary and keels over in the carpark. By all accounts, he’s a nice man and liked by many people considering he was a local Councillor on Pagford’s wheeling-dealing Parish Council. His demise leaves a casual vacancy on the Council board and the fight over his seat begins. The reader learns there’s a war going on between the communities of Pagford and Yarvil over maintenance of the Fields, a decrepit housing estate, and the closure of a methadone clinic. Not much political correctness goes on in council chambers.
“There you have it, henceforth The Casual Vacancy seethes with social snobbery, underage excess, racism, drug addiction and the ever-present spectres of greed, selfishness, ignorance and cruelty. But, hey, don’t let that put you off. This story hooked me like a continually unfolding TV saga or radio play. I’d put it down and then have to pick it up just to see what happens to Krystal Weedon and her dissipated mother Terri, or Howard Mollison and his new café, or the ill-fated relationship of Gavin Hughes and Kay Bawden.
“Social worker Kay is new to Pagford and not a big player but she’s hardworking, misguided and gullible and the one I wanted to shout at, tell her to grab her daughter and get out of town fast. The others, like Simon Price, are set up to be despised with appalling behaviour behind closed doors. Occasionally I grew tired of the angry men and the gossiping wives and found that the sabotaging teenagers had more diverse demeanours, although young Sukhvinder Jawanda is heart-rending. Was the ending so predictable? As this inharmonious story draws to a close, I know it’s all still happening in real life.
“What more can I say? The Casual Vacancy is an adult novel and anyone who’s been around the block a few times will related to its adult themes. Whether or not the right people read it and change their social attitudes is another thing. Sure it’s a tad depressing but I’ll give J K Rowling full marks for moving on from Hogwarts and writing something completely different.” Unquote.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward 2019