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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Summer Watch and Read: The Casual Vacancy Review

Last week, I read my first ever “new” book since the onslaught of the Leaving Cert. I’ve been so tired from studying in the past few months that I’ve only had the time to re-read, dipping back into old, comforting favourites.

I was so excited to sink my teeth into something new, so I got started with the Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling.

I must admit it was a bit of a summer love affair: I took the book everywhere with me, I fell asleep next to it, I woke up in the morning and opened it up again. I read it in three days straight. It had me totally hooked and if that’s not the sign of a good book, then I don’t know what is.

Blurb: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. 
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. 
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. 
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? 
A big novel about a small town, 
The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It is the work of a storyteller like no other.

In case you haven’t heard of it (where have you been? Even I’ve heard of it!), The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s first book to be written outside of the Harry Potter Series and its additional books.
Not much was given away by the title, but basically the book delves into the lives of various people and families from a small English town where the Parish Council is God and gossip and secrets are traded like currency.

For me, living in the Irish countryside, this was all very familiar indeed.

Rather than focusing on one or two main characters, the book offers glimpses into the lives of about a dozen people, yet somehow we get to know them all thoroughly through the little snapshots Rowling offers. It’s really fascinating to see how various people’s lives can intertwine and effect one another—or not, as the case may be.

In this way, it was very reminiscent of the work of Maeve Binchy—if you enjoyed such novels of hers as Evening Class or Circle of Friends, then The Casual Vacancy is probably for you.

However, the sheer number of characters mane the story a little hard to follow: I found I had to keep flicking back and reminding myself that “he’s her son” and “they work together” and so forth, but the best thing to do was just to relax and get on with reading the story—everyone became familiar soon enough.

The book is certainly not a bundle of laughs, if that’s what you’re looking for! It begins and ends with death 
and in between deals with issues such as addiction, bullying and poverty to name but a few. It also presents a negative view of family life and marriage with couples constantly involved in power struggles, or one person finding their partner is no longer the person they married. While at times, it felt like the author was almost trying to be controversial or shocking, it also serves to make the story very realistic and eye opening—imperfections are dealt with in total honesty. No character is idealised or given the “Hollywood treatment”, which I find I appreciate a bit more in my old age (!).

I found the four main teenagers in the book to be a little predictable: they obsess over the opposite sex, hate their parents, hate themselves… they practise and enjoy all of the things an adult these days might presume teenagers do. That being said, Rowling’s perception of youth wasn’t far wrong. Teenagers can be fairly predictable.

I think the thing that fascinated me the most, and probably the most uplifting feature of the story, was the huge effect Barry Fairbrother has (or had) on the lives of the people of Pagford. He is just a drop in the ocean, as it were, and the alarming ripple effect he has caused within the community is sadly only noticed after his death. We only meet him when he dies, but he seems to have been an extraordinary person and who has had a huge impact on the teenagers and adults we meet–often positive, occasionally negative.
That said, he is the exact opposite of this: he is totally ordinary. It really brings home the message that we don’t appreciate how important each and every seemingly insignificant person is in this world, often until it’s too late. I think we should all try to be a Barry Fairbrother, is that’s possible!

Overall, I’m not bursting to read this book again right away, but I’m not one to pretend a book isn’t amazing when it clearly is. I was addicted to this book and the story is really well written. All elements are tied together nicely, the plot is tight and the writing style is, as was expected, second to none. JK Rowling certainly hasn’t disappointed, nor would I have expected her to.

I was delighted to find that The Casual Vacancy is being made into a TV series in the next year or so! I think it’s a brilliant idea as I’d love to see all the characters brought to life onscreen, but feel that the story wouldn’t have held its own as a film. It appears that Sir Michael Gambon is to play the character of Howard Mollison—I can’t imagine him as such an unpleasant person (spoiler alert, we hate Howard!) and it seems like a desperate attempt to cling on to something Harry Potter, but of course the man is a great actor, a total chameleon, and will bring all his skill and charisma to the production.



I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. It’s the first I’ve ever written for the blog, and it’s been great fun. Let me know if you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on books, TV shows, films or even products!

Catherine Ann x

2 comments:

  1. I've been curious to read this book after I finish the Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, because, surprise surprise, I adore Harry Potter and I want to see how they measure up. Though maybe it isn't too fair to compare her works with each other. The plot sounds great though. :) x
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    1. I definitely think that you'll enjoy the book, since she has brought her wonderful writing style with her to this new genre! But yes, don't go into it thinking about Harry Potter... I just picked it up and read it like any other book and found it was brilliant :) xxx

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