Mixed Feelings on The Casual Vacancy

15 03 2013

I finally got through The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, and I have to say my feelings on the book are mixed. While I applaud Ms. Rowling’s first break from the genre she is so well know for (and was glad to see she was able to use grown-up curse words), I have to say I didn’t completely enjoy the book. I found that the way the story was told, and the nature of the story, forced me to spend far too much mental effort keeping track of who was who, and what they were doing and why. It isn’t a book that you can read for a bit, put down for a period of time (even a single evening) and take up where you left off. It takes concentration. As an experiment in writing, I was glad she tried it. As a finished product, I wasn’t entirely impressed. (I will avoid spoilers at all costs in this, so don’t worry about this giving away key plot points).

The book is set in the fictional town of Pagford, which neighbours another fictional city, Yarvil, and contains a run-down impoverished neighbourhood named The Fields. It deals with the trials and tribulations of a small West Country community dealing with politics and determined to avoid the changing world around them. The inter-personal conflicts, and a society that has been generally kept apart from the “rest of the world” is forced to deal with some of the more sordid parts of modern-day society.

Expansive Writing

What I liked about the book was Ms. Rowling’s expansive approach to writing. You could see it develop over the course of the Harry Potter series, where the early books were a more terse and tighter style. As the books progressed, the writing and the universe that was written about became more complete. The best analogy I can think of is viewing a painting from a fairly close position. With this style of writing, you not only get sufficient detail in your immediate field of view to see what the picture is about, but there is also just enough detail on the periphery to fill things in.

This is different than some writers, such as Tom Clancy, who tend to focus on details within your immediate field of vision as a reader, and leave the side details out until you need them. When you are focused on plot-drive writing, that actually works well, because it allows the reader to focus on the action, and not necessarily get lost in the minutiae of the moment.

While some may find the comparison ill-considered, Ms. Rowling’s general style is more akin to Tolkien, who let us know there was a deep and rich universe for the story, but didn’t overwhelm us with the details all the time. Her works may not have the same depth as Middle Earth, but you can certainly see some of the influence in her style: enough detail to be interesting, but not so much that we lose the story itself.

Cast Of Thousands

Once we get past the general writing style, and get into the specifics, I start to have problems with the book. My first major issue was with the sheer number of main characters. The Harry Potter series really had 3: Harry, Ron and Hermione. They were supported by a broad and rich set of secondary characters, some to help, some to hinder and others simply to provide colour. Even in The Lord of the Rings, we really only have eight or so main characters, with a deep cast of important but nevertheless supporting people.

In The Casual Vacancy, there are 19 main characters, although some are introduced later in the story. There are a handful of secondary, supporting characters, but few really matter or leave a lasting impression. Most aren’t even the depth of a cardboard cutout, and they are almost more cliches than real characters. To make matters worse, because this is a story set in contemporary society, the main characters all have fairly mundane and uninteresting names. A name like Albus Dumbledore or Severus Snape stands out. Colin Wall or Simon Price do not.

The result is a need to invest the first 5-15 minutes of your time reading to remember who was who. I found myself having to flip back to remember “who was he again…” or “what did she do…” or “who are they related to…” the first few minutes after picking up the book. That detracted from the story, and made it hard to hold the plot together.

Character Driven By Cardboard Cutouts

While the secondary characters have the depth of tissue paper, I found the main characters to be rather shallow as well. I can see that Ms. Rowling was trying to make this a character-driven story, but that can be hard to do with so many characters, and with characters that don’t really have a lot of depth.

The result is that some of the main plot points that appear important to start, suddenly fade into insignificance. One main element remained the central point of the story, and the focus of most character interaction, until about 3/4 through the book, where it suddenly becomes an afterthought. What happens is a shift, a focus, that centres on the development of one the main characters. As a reader, I found myself wondering what the point of the rest of the book was, when a secondary character becomes a primary character well past the half-way point of the story, and suddenly becomes the only real main character. It was a bit of a let-down.

The Hopping Voice

There are, of course, many ways to tell a story. Some are told from a 3rd person perspective, as if we are watching the book through a movie camera. The author, or perhaps a disembodied narrator, tells us what is happening. From time to time, we may duck into a character’s head, and get a sense of what they are thinking or feeling, but those are brief and obvious.

Another is tell the story in a first-person sort of way, where we get to see something through the eyes of a character. We get to hear their inner thoughts, and get their view, obviously filtered and coloured by their own preconceptions and prejudices. Some books do this from multiple character’s perspectives, but the boundaries between changes in character voice is usually clear and obvious.

In The Casual Vacancy, the point of view jumps from character to character on a sometimes paragraph by paragraph basis. One paragraph (or two, or ten) we see things from inside Howard’s head, and hear his thoughts and perceptions. Then suddenly, we are inside Maureen, or inside Shirley. Suddenly, without a clear transition, it becomes a 3rd-person account.

This was frustrating. It meant having to focus, and sometimes back up to remind yourself who is speaking/thinking now. This focus, again, made it hard to concentrate on the characters or the story. This, combined with how shallow most of the characters seemed, made it hard to identify with a character. You weren’t rooting for anyone. You weren’t necessarily hoping for any particular outcome. At times, it was simply to get through to see what would happen, in the hopes that maybe there would be some unexpected twist.

The Long Parentheticals

Ms. Rowling, in an attempt to provide useful or interesting background, includes parenthetical asides (literally enclosed in parenthesis, like this little aside). These are certainly useful, because it provides us with backstory that explains a particular character’s motivation or perspective. But these aren’t one-sentence or one-paragraph parentheticals. Some go on for over a page or more, such that you forget you are reading about an aside, and not current events in the story. I found myself stopping at times, wondering if we are still in the interesting memory or anecdote, or if were back in Pagford or The Fields dealing with the current goings-on.

I get that the reader needs these little backstory elements. They are highly useful in helping us understand what we are reading, or what is about to happen next. But they are so long, it becomes easy to get lost in the side-track and forget where the main story is. Perhaps there were other ways to structure the book such that it was clear when the remembrance ended and when the story was back on.

No Real Ending

While I have no problem with the book starting “in the middle of the story”, the fact that doesn’t really end, and rather just stops, is a bit frustrating. At the beginning, part of the interest is uncovering the sordid little secrets, and discovering the history and activities that lead to the present situation. By the first third of the book, the reader has a pretty good handle on who is who, and why the events being described are happening. We get the various motivations for the characters. But around 80% of the way through, the story suddenly shifts, and becomes focused on characters we don’t really expect. Then we see some incomplete developments as one of those characters begins to blossom and grow, and suddenly, it’s over. I had to check to make sure that the version I was reading wasn’t missing something.

Again, I don’t have a problem with a book starting in the middle of things. For any book based in a reasonably complete universe, that is to be expected. Part of the joy of reading a story is learning enough about the backstory to give the current story some depth and breadth. But what is frustrating is a book that doesn’t really end, it just sort of stops (or worse, gives up, as if the author decided “enough, I’m going to stop writing now”).

The Casual Vacancy deserved a real ending. It needed more, but unfortunately, it doesn’t have it.

An Interesting Experiment

I’m not sure any new writer would have gotten away with what we saw in The Casual Vacancy. Ms. Rowling has enough personal clout, and a record of success, that will let her try virtually anything she wants. A good editor working with a new writer would have resulted in a different, and potentially better, book. That isn’t to say this book shouldn’t be published. It still should have. But it wouldn’t have happened with someone with a lesser or unknown history as a writer.

The lack of an ending, a cast of main characters that was far too large, and the lack of focus in terms of voice, and an ever-shifting main plot, detracted from what could have been an interesting, character-driven story. I just couldn’t sympathize with the characters, and didn’t find myself rooting for anyone in particular. I was tempted to simply stop reading at points, and only finished because a book should be read from start to finish. Perhaps I was optimistic that things would improve, but sadly, that was not the case.

If I were to give the book a rating, I would give it 2.5 stars out of 5. I applaud Ms. Rowling’s attempt at experimentation, and I would certainly encourage her to keep trying. All writers need to experiment, and try new things, and learn from the effort. I would recommend The Casual Vacancy to other writers, if only to see an approach to story telling that, for me, was somewhat unconventional. It was a story that had plenty of potential, but it needed fewer and deeper main characters, at least one main character that we are expected to either love or hate. It also needed fewer distractions that didn’t add to the story itself. If I were to sum up how to fix the book, it would be one word: focus. Focus on a voice, focus on a plot, and focus on fewer characters. The lack of focus ultimately detracted from the book for me.




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16 03 2013
My Specific Problems With The Casual Vacancy | Thoughts and Muses

[…] previous post on The Casual Vacancy discussed my general problems and concerns with the book. I tried to (hopefully) avoid spoiling the […]

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