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#484 ~ The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Published by: Little, Brown, & Company

Published on: September 27, 2012

Page Count: 503

Genre: Fiction

My Reading Format: Both purchased Hardcover and Audiobook review copy sent to me for consideration

Audiobook Published By: Hachette Audio

Narrator: Tom Hollander

Audiobook Length: 17 hours 55 minutes

Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook


My Review

The Casual Vacancy is a bleak tale of small town life and politics. The Pagford Parish Council is in the middle of an internal civil war regarding the fate of a low income neighborhood called the Fields. This neighborhood, which is partially overseen and funded by both Pagford and a larger neighboring city, is an eyesore to many in Pagford, who view their quaint, middle class community as better. They do not want children from the Fields to attend their nicer schools and they do not want the associated methadone clinic in one of their rental properties. Others feel just the opposite. They believe that the connection to Pagford provides an opportunity for the children to make something of themselves and does not in any way diminish Pagford itself. Barry Fairbrother is in the process of taking the pro-Fields side of the debate to the papers when, on his anniversary, he falls over dead of an aneurism at the country club. His death, which results in a casual vacancy on the council, throws the future of the Council, the Fields, and the lives of all interested parties into an upheaval that creates more victims than winners.

When I approached The Casual Vacancy, I was a J. K. Rowling virgin. I’ve barely even held a Harry Potter novel, let alone cracked one of the books open. Countless times people who barely read have questioned my book blogger cred because I’ve never read that series. It isn’t as if I have any disdain for Rowling or Harry Potter. People who regularly read this blog or talk with me about books know that wizards, magic, and most things paranormal do not intrinsically appeal to me. As popular as Harry Potter is, I put those books in the “read them with my kids” category (For the record, I have offered to start reading them to the girls. I have been turned down flat. In this case, it’s them, not the books). So, when it was announced that Rowling was going to publish a novel for adults, my interest was piqued. I appreciated that a well established author wanted to try something entirely different. This woman, who could have easily retired without having penned another sentence, chose to break her own mold, knowing full well I imagine that there would be many who would pan whatever she wrote because it wasn’t Harry Potter. With me, I knew that there would be at least one person who would anticipate the book for that very same reason.

I began reading this book in hardcover. I had requested a review copy of the audiobook, but I wasn’t sure if I would actually get one and I didn’t want to wait. I sometimes get impatient about books. I was about 75 pages in when a black bubble wrapped package arrived in the mail with a big The Casual Vacancy sticker on it. There had been positive Twitter chatter about narrator Tom Hollander, not that I needed my arms twisted to make the switch to audio. When I did so, I listened from the beginning, which I found helpful in establishing the characters. While I’m sure that the outcome would have been much the same had I stayed with print, I am glad I made the call that I did.

Tom Hollander was excellent as narrator. His tone and his vocal range worked well for both the older citizens and the town’s angst-ridden teens. His narration stayed true to each of the characters as he narrated them, betraying no hint of allegiance whatsoever. While none of the characters were entirely sympathetic, one could very easily choose one side of the Pagford/Fields debate over the other. I would gladly listen to Tom Hollander read the meeting minutes of a dry parish council meeting any day. What I also enjoyed about this audiobook was its packaging. As someone who normally downloads copies of audiobooks, packaging is virtually off my radar. This audiobook made me understand for the first time why there is an Audie category for excellent packaging. More so than the book cover, handling this audiobook gave me a sense of the book’s atmosphere and tone. It’s gorgeous and this picture doesn’t do it justice.

The beginning of the novel was slow for me. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting. It was hard to listen to in large doses because of how bleak everyone’s story was. It mattered not if the character was privileged or poor, middle aged or young, there was very little to be happy or optimistic about. Added to the dreariness of their lives, few were very sympathetic. Whether they were attributable to youth or the artifacts of  experience, each character was flawed and it took time for me to acclimate and come to terms with them. While supposedly the fate of an entire neighborhood rested on the shoulders of this election, the people of Pagford seemed overly concerned with the weight of others. It was mentioned repeatedly as if the weight issues of Pagford were an anchor of sorts. A strong case could be made that weight itself  was a character in the novel. That being said, once I found my footing in Pagford, the twists, turns, personal agendas, and the impact that Pagford family life had on this election kept me listening. I could sense the train wrecks that were just around the bend, but, however small, there were the glimmers of little mercies as well.

The Casual Vacancy snuck up on me. I found it to be interesting throughout and I was glad to have read it, I hadn’t bargained on my reaction to the ending. There were tragedies that couldn’t be averted, but the redemption that could be found was, to me, beautiful. As much as I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy, I would not expect everyone to feel the same way. It is dismal and I can well understand how readers with the magic of Harry Potter in their rear-view would be caught off balance by Pagford. This J.K. Rowling virgin discovered her gift for writing characters so entrenched in their own reality that I’d expect to both find Pagford on the map and meet its citizens on the street. Tom Hollander’s narration was icing on the cake. Although I will never know how I would feel about The Casual Vacancy if I had read Harry Potter, I was glad to be able to approach it without bias. Regardless, I left Pagford a happy reader.

13 Comments

  • At 2012.10.29 07:28, bermudaonion(Kathy) said:

    I didn’t love this book – I wonder if I should have gone with the audio.

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    • At 2012.10.29 08:44, Krista Miller said:

      Your review was spot on!! The book snuck up on me too and although I wanted to hate it because it was not HP I really could not because of “her gift for writing characters so entrenched in their own reality that I’d expect to both find Pagford on the map and meet its citizens on the street.” I will be reading it again with no expectations this time and expect to enjoy it even more!

      • At 2012.10.29 09:11, Natalie ~ the Coffee and a Book Chick said:

        I’ve read the Harry Potter series and really enjoyed it, and I knew I had to separate those feelings from this book, which was easy to do. I think a lot of readers unfortunately have not allowed themselves to separate JK Rowling from the ability to create new “universes” and it’s a shame to pass up on this book because of that. I really “enjoyed” this book, for all its bleakness, and am eager to read more from her. I did listen to a sample of the audiobook version, and the narrator does sound perfect for the story. Glad you enjoyed it!

        • At 2012.10.29 10:59, Jen - Devourer of Books said:

          I agree about the beginning being slow. It was probably page 50 or 60 before I started getting into it, but I ended up really enjoying it as well.

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          • At 2012.10.29 11:55, Deb said:

            Great review Jennifer. As Krista (above) said, “Spot on”. As Tom Hollander’s biggest fan and curator of http://www.thomagination.com/default.htm I have known about this and anticipated it for a long time. Like you though, I don’t know if I would have like the book (at least in the beginning) had I read it in book form. Tom is so great at narrating stories though and I knew it would be good despite the slow beginning. He has a way of painting an image with his voice that is incomparable. The story snuck up on me too. I didn’t see the end coming and I sat there and cried the first time. Yes, I have listened twice. It’s even better the second time. ;)

            • At 2012.10.29 12:58, Anita said:

              I really have no desire to read this book. Not sure why, maybe it was the hype. Glad it eventually,worked for you.

              • [...] #484 ~ The Casual Vacancy (literatehousewife.com) [...]

                • At 2012.10.29 23:16, Susan said:

                  I couldn’t agree more with your review of this book. Being a huge Harry Potter fan, I had no idea what to expect when I decided to pick up JK’s book. Like you, I also had a hard time getting into the book and getting past the pity and disgust I felt for many of these characters. In the end, I was left with a beautiful sadness that I couldn’t really make sense of until I read your review. It’s hard to put what I thought of this book into words, but you did it for me! So, thank you!

                  -Susan

                  PS- I also listen to this novel on audio and I LOVED Tom!

                  • At 2012.10.30 06:17, Jennifer said:

                    I’ve read so many differing reviews on this one that I don’t know what to do! I know I’ll get around to it but I might wait (years!) for the hype to go away, lol.

                    • At 2012.10.31 06:36, Patti Smith said:

                      I read the HP series with my kids and enjoyed them…but never re-read them or spent a lot of time talking about them with other people besides my kids. I hoped that there was enough space in between the last HP read and The Casual Vacancy that I would be able to separate the two…and so far, I have. I’m taking it slow and allowing myself to actually enjoy Rowling’s way with words and the complicated in depth story and web of characters. Her ability to put all this together is what amazes me about her writing. I enjoyed your review :)

                      • At 2012.11.14 15:07, Matthew (Bibliofreak.net) said:

                        I read this, but I can really see the benefit of listening to it on audiobook. The number of characters was pretty overwhelming to start with, particularly when some of them appeared fairly similar at first glance. Thanks for an interesting read.

                        • At 2012.11.14 23:33, Jennifer said:

                          I agree with you on keeping the characters straight at first. I think I benefited both from the listen as well as going back over the first chapters a second time. When almost everyone is unhappy and to one degree or another messed up, the actual reasons for the unhappiness were more memorable than the character names.

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