My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Seeing so many bad reviews of this book really breaks my heart. Judging from the fact that there are also a great number of reviews praising it and having just finished it myself, I am convinced the (somewhat) widespread dislike comes from misperceptions of what the book is about and what people expected from Ms. Rowling's "next chapter." Let's face it, the book sold so many copies so quickly because of who J.K. Rowling is. And I am certain there are elements in this novel (rape, incest, drug use, self-mutilation, mental illness, domestic violence, criminal behavior, cheating, and the free use of foul language, just to name a few) that won't sit well with some of Rowling’s fans whether or not they resist the temptation to compare it to Harry Potter.
That aside, J.K. Rowling is still, without a doubt, a skilled writer and storyteller. She is still the same person who breathed life into the magical world of Harry Potter, but in The Casual Vacancy, she breathes life into a much uglier, grimier world. This is no fantasy; it’s still fiction, but it’s about real life. There is misery and heartbreak, pettiness and selfishness, unhappiness and desperation. Rowling brings the town and people of Pagford to vivid life, but it's not a pretty picture.
Against the backdrop of a local election to fill the council seat of the deceased Barry Fairbrother, Rowling keenly observes the citizens of a small town and tells their story without any sugar-coating. She shows us that people are often so caught up in their own petty issues and problems that they fail to see the world is so much bigger than their own tiny place in it. She shows us just how horribly human beings can treat each other -- sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. She shines a light on the cruelty of a society divided by class and the mistrust it breeds between people who see each other as “different.”
I must say, I found it a bit ironic to be reading this in the days leading up to the presidential election. The sharp dividing line between "parties" in the book reminds me so much of the state of our own country. There is an inability for people to see things from another’s point of view and there is a stubborn unwillingness to work together.
To move a little bit away from the abstract, I want to briefly talk about Krystal, a character I couldn’t help but love. She lives in poverty and her mother is a drug-addicted prostitute. She is crude and crass and her very presence in one of Pagford's schools is a thorn in the side of many "good citizens" of the town. This girl has many flaws, but with the exception of Barry Fairbrother who has (in this case) the advantage of being dead, the most likeable character in the whole book. The things this girl has lived through are unthinkable. But through it all, she's built up a tough skin and she's been a survivor. She does not make the best decisions, but she tries to take on responsibility for her baby brother whom she loves very much. That’s an awful lot to ask of a 16 year old. I’m not going to tell you what happens, but know that if you're looking for a happy ending, you're reading the wrong book.