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Brilliant, Disturbing, Not for Everyone
on October 8, 2012
Having read some of the more negative views, I have to say this: Would you have ranked "1984", "The Bluest Eye", "The Grapes of Wrath", or "Great Expectations" so badly? Guess what, some of the best stories aren't fun-filled light reading! Some of the best works are disturbing, even sad. So, if your view of literature is that a book can only be worthwhile if you can breeze through it having a fun adventure, then don't bother with this book. This is something else entirely.
That said, "The Casual Vacancy" is a disturbing character study. It is written in third-person omniscient point of view. It does require some effort to handle a story with some 18 or so viewpoint characters, so this book will be at too high a reading level for some. I normally don't like the omniscient POV, but this story had to be told that way and Rowling handles it with expertise.
So, what is this book about? It is about pain and cruelty and why people become cruel. There are no traditional protagonists or antagonists, just people going through life. Rowling explores the various ways that people become cruel, angry, or jaded with each main character showing a different form of cruelty and a different reason for it. And, this book is about the people that get hurt by other people's pain and anger.
This isn't an easy book to read, probably the reason so many have reviewed it negatively. But, this is a brilliantly written book, just not for everyone.
This novel is written with a seldom-seen narrative structure. In this structure the story begins with a simple, perhaps commonplace, connection between a group of people (in this case, someone dies, which has some effect on each of these characters). The narrative then explores how each character's life led him or her to be present for that connecting event and then the character moves on past the single event. As this structure is used for a character study, the connecting event may not even be particularly important. Instead, we see a collection of interconnected characters as the main thrust of the novel, rather than a single story unfolding. In this case, we follow how the death at the beginning of the novel affects approximately 18 characters.
I highly recommend this book to those who want to read something thought-provoking and actually about the real world. But, if you want some light reading that you don't have to think about, then stay away from "The Casual Vacancy".
To those who reviewed it negatively because it wasn't like Harry Potter, I can only ask whether they were paying attention. Rowling explored many of these themes, hidden behind the window dressing of fantasy, in those books. That is why Harry Potter was not just another of the countless stories about magical children. She continues this exploration in "The Casual Vacancy", but without the magic and without the restrictions of children's literature.
Edited to add: I realize that Rowling has described this as a dark comedy. I don't know why she has said that. Perhaps she had intended this to be a comedy, and there are some satirical scenes, but it grew into something else as she developed and revised it. Whatever the case, I saw very little that was humorous in this book. I did greatly appreciate the book, but I don't know why she would claim it was a comedy, dark or otherwise.