You know what the quickest way to ruin something is? Impossibly high expectations.
What can I say about this book, which already has 18,000 (?!?) reviews on Goodreads that hasn’t already been said? I picked up THE CASUAL VACANCY at King’s Cross Station in London because I wanted a book set in England to read as I study abroad here. CASUAL VACANCY is very British, nicely and refreshingly so. For the first half of the book, it was my transportation book — I pulled it out when I was on the tube, the train, and didn’t read it in between trips. But by the second half, I was reading it compulsively; during classes, walking down the street (look left), and any free moment I had. I was determined to finish it, but it wasn’t until I was almost done that I finally realized I was enjoying it.
On the surface, it’s a book about the smallest of elections, and its effect on the town. But it’s also about race and class and family and grief, dysfunctional relationships and love and hate. You see the ugliness of every character, and it was sometimes difficult to find someone to root for, because the true shining light on the town of Pagford dies on the second page.
The book sometimes felt too heavy with issues. Like Rowling was very keen on emphasizing that she wasn’t writing kids books anymore. Rape, neglect, abuse, drug addiction, personality disorders, self-harm…it’s difficult to read. But it’s well-done, always, and written in a stark light that does not sugarcoat the darker sides of everyday life. I felt for the characters, even if I hated what they were doing to themselves or to others.
In terms of the writing mechanics: Harry Potter was an excellent story that slid through some less-than-stellar writing with its lovable characters and plot intricacies. VACANCY does not have the same luxury; with (very) few characters worth rooting for, and a much smaller plot scale, some of the flimsy passages appear much more apparent, as do some chapters with sluggish pacing.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, because if you make it all the way to the end of the massive book, you deserve the stunning conclusion. The ending is haunting in a way that stays with you long after you finish the book. Some characters get what they deserve, some of them don’t. But it all comes together in this beautiful, inevitable way.
Read it, stick with it when its slow, make a list of all the characters to help you keep them straight. There’s 30+ characters, and I think the Guardian published a guide to all of them when the book was first released. But it’s fun to make your own list too, and write down your thoughts and interpretations of the characters as they develop.