RAD Book Club review: The Casual Vacancy

11 Jan 2017

At our latest meeting, RAD Book Club discussed J. K. Rowling’s bestselling first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.

It tells the story of the inhabitants of an English town called Pagford as they deal with the aftermath of the death of a member of their Parish Council.

The group was evenly split between those of us who enjoyed it and those of us who didn’t. One of the main things we discussed was that Rowling chose to have more than 30 characters introduced in the book, and the exposition at the start of the novel serves mainly to introduce their personalities, familial bonds and friendships. We felt that her systematic introduction of all the characters at the beginning of the novel meant that the plot took quite a while to get going, and suffered from too much dialogue that didn’t necessarily further the story. We also discussed the novel’s length and whether the characters and the plot would have benefited from some judicious editing – at 550 pages long, we all agreed that the length was not justified!

The group was totally divided on how we felt about the characters – some thought they were too caricatured and that having so many of them meant nobody was explored in depth. Others felt that their motivations were understandable and in this way were well drawn. We all agreed that all the characters’ flaws were concentrated on and some of the group felt that this meant the novel lacked any positivity. We enjoyed Rowling’s adept creation of worlds within her novels – the town of Pagford rings true to everyday English life and some of the characters were very recognisable. Pagford is an affluent, thoroughly middle-class town that is bordered by the Fields, a council estate which is the polar opposite. Open hostility towards the Fields (and the people who live there) from the majority of Pagford’s inhabitants is the driving force of the events in the novel.

We talked about how the novel’s publication around the time that Britain’s coalition government came to power might have influenced Rowling’s writing as she drew upon the bigger problems and divisions in British society, showing Pagford as a microcosm of the UK. The novel also discusses the multi-faceted problem of addiction, cycles of abuse, and how the impact of cuts to health and social services amplifies these problems for those people who are most vulnerable. We felt that while this was a noble and pertinent message, sometimes Rowling’s distinction between rich and poor was drawn too simplistically, particularly as all the well-off characters have absolutely no redeeming features, while their counterparts are drawn with more sympathy.

The book was also quite cinematic, and that the sense of having many different things going on at once in the same place would be well-suited to the screen, where it might be easier to cut between scenes and to show multiple points of view. Some of the group had seen the mini-series of the book, which was broadcast in 2015, and agreed that it had worked well on screen.