This month’s book club choice was A Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling. Coming off the back of last month’s shocker, I was looking forward to reading a proper book ie a book that has a story, characters and dialogue. Well I wasn’t disappointed.
It’s worth saying up front that I came to this book fresh to Rowling’s writing. She has made her millions of course as the creator of the Harry Potter universe and although I’ve seen most of the films, I haven’t read any of her books. I don’t think her skill as an author has ever been in doubt as the Potter franchise demonstrates a vivid and lucid imagination at work with a steady storytelling hand on the tiller. But what would her first ‘proper’ book be like?
A Casual Vacancy is a real departure for Rowling in that a) it’s a book for adults and b) it’s a book about modern life in all its tedium and tragedy in suburban Britain in 2013. She’s clearly had enough of wizards and mudbloods and is now focusing in on the minutiae of ordinary life in the home counties. Set in the fictitious town of Pagford, A Casual Vacancy uses the death of a local parish councillor and his replacement’s election to tell a number of stories, each delicately weaved around each other.
Rowling zooms right in on the themes of class, social mobility, drug issues, poverty and wealth distribution with plenty of sharp insights. At times it felt a little like she was ticking off boxes – social alienation, tick. Teenage self harm, tick. Cyber bullying, tick. Posh folks having run ins with local chavs, tick. She definitely piles it all in.
Interesting to note that the adult characters she portrays are all pretty unlikable, apart from the dead councillor who we never meet. Predictably Rowling shows more compassion when writing about the teenage characters which is perhaps where her true feelings lie.
It’s over a week since I’ve read this book and that’s always a good test – what has stayed and what has started to fade. I found this book entertaining and as the book reached it’s somewhat predictable denouement it certainly engaged me but at the same time I was left wanting more. Maybe the book spreads itself too thin, trying to cover all the key issues facing modern suburbanites or maybe Rowling is just too lightweight a writer to really go for the jugular, I’m not sure.
But it’s worth a read: the pages skip by and her style is light and engaging, quickly eating up the hefty page count. The book club discussion was, as usual, insightful and enlightening with a good range of scores making for a great evening’s discussion.
I’m glad we read it but I’m ready for a literary heavyweight to my teeth into and the next book we’re reading (at long last) is The Great Gatsby. Tune in next time to see what we made of it!