Let’s start reviewing JK Rowling.

09 Apr

[Content notes: rape, classism, bullying]

:So, I mentioned in my introductory post that one of the goals of this blog is for the two of us to eventually publish a complete Harry Potter re-read and analysis. Yes, another one, there are already dozens if not hundreds out there on the Internet – but the good ones aren’t finished, and the bad ones tend to agree with what the books tell us and perpetrate everything the narrative contains, without looking any deeper. We’re not going to be doing that, as anyone who’s read any of our fanfics might expect – we both have a love-hate relationship with these books and we’re going to be shredding everything.

But that’s a project for another day. Before we reach that point I’m going to be looking at Rowling’s other works, beginning today with a post looking briefly at The Casual Vacancy and following up with maybe half a dozen short posts talking about The Cuckoo’s Calling. These aren’t going to be in-depth looks because frankly I wasn’t interested enough, which really tells you all you need to know because I can read almost anything.

So, The Casual Vacancy.This is a single post for a reason. I had quite a few issues with it. I have only read it once, about a year ago; my brother bought it for my mother for Christmas because it sounded like the sort of book she would enjoy, and after she’d read it she passed it to me with a deeply unimpressed expression: “I wouldn’t read another one of her books. I think it was written by two different people. The middle bit of it [marks off the central third or so of the book] was really good; the rest was absolutely rubbish. And it takes a very long time to get into.” I’m paraphrasing a little but but that was the gist of her reaction. (Bear in mind my mother is absolutely not a critical reader, she doesn’t analyse what she reads the way I do, and she either missed or simply didn’t comment on all the things I found wrong with it when I read it.)

Let’s start with the synopsis provided on Rowling’s own website.

When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.

Seemingly an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.

Now, disregarding the fact that I think it’s in poor taste to add praise for your own book on your own website (and the first character we meet being named Barry; I suppose we should be grateful the protagonist of The Cuckoo’s Calling wasn’t named Larry), this sounds like an okay book. Nothing spectacular, of course, no action scenes, but a fairly gently-paced story about village politics that will have plenty of scope to explore the different characters involved, since we don’t have a very complex plot to take up space.

It’s not.

Well, no, that’s a little harsh. Most of it sort of is. The actual story isn’t bad, it’s what it says on the tin. Barry dies in the first three pages, and that’s about all that happens for a significant portion of the book, as we meet each of the main characters and see their reactions to the death and learn about how they’re all connected. I’m perfectly okay with introductory periods at the start of novels, particularly ones with a large cast, but she drags this out for far longer than necessary and it means that it’s very hard to keep track of who’s who at first. It’s written in a similar style to Harry Potter but somehow not as polished, so slightly worse, almost as if it’s a draft – there aren’t any noticeable mistakes (or none that I can recall, a year later, from re-reading my message to Mitchell sent after I’d finished it), it just doesn’t flow as well.

It’s a strange book – it’s reading as one of those sleepy rural-idyll type stories, small towns and villages and local politics where not a lot happens and it’s just a nice gentle read, but Rowling tries to make it really dramatic. I mean, we’ve got drug use, sex (not as much as I was half-expecting based on some of the reviews, nor quite as bad, but it’s pretty poorly done and very boring when it does show up and utterly gratuitous), child abuse/neglect, violence, self-harm… it’s just not dramatic. It’s very forgettable and reads like a bad fanfic where it’s been stuck in to generate angst and isn’t really part of the actual plot. All the characters seem flat and stereotypical – we have the slutty heroin addict with slutty illegitimate daughter, the drunk middle-aged housewife with boring husband, the sulky spotty rebellious teen, the weak ineffectual authority figure, the commitment-phobic with clingy girlfriend, the Indian doctor insisting on all her children working hard and getting top grades… every character is a one-dimensional walking trope.

There are a couple of points I want to focus on here. First is the classism, which is a common theme in all Rowling’s writing. Poor people are just horrible, and she hates them. (No, not the Weasleys. They’re a separate issue to be discussed some other time. We’re going to ignore Harry Potter here.) On the edge of this village is an estate of social housing. About a quarter of our recurring cast come from here, including a main character – the slutty illegitimate daughter I mentioned in the previous paragraph, named something like Krystal or Kristal, I forget. My calling her slutty is no reflection of my views, by the way; it’s how she’s portrayed in the book, along with her mother, and every single character we meet from this estate under the age of about sixty. I’m not exaggerating, all of them sleep around indiscriminately, and are looked down on by the middle-class characters for it. They are all ugly in some way, most of them are overweight and have poor hygiene, a lot of them use drugs, deal drugs or both, and every last one of them speaks with Hagrid’s terrible accent because they’re all stupid. And not stupid like the loveable friendly (brainwashed) half-giant, either; just stupid. All the children either just don’t attend school (which is illegal) or play truant most of the time, they swear indiscriminately at everyone, and generally act like every stereotype the tabloids rant about. There are no exceptions. All poor people are ugly, stupid, unwashed moral cesspits. There is exactly one attempt by Rowling to make one of these characters – probably-Krystal – redeem herself, via a very popular trope she abused to death in Harry Potter – that of sacrifice. A noble death is the only thing that can compensate for the fact that probably-Krystal is such a terrible poor person. Except it wasn’t particularly noble and was partly her own fault, so maybe it’s just further hating on her.

My second issue is bullying. You’re going to be hearing a great deal from me about bullying when we get to Harry Potter, it’s probably my single biggest issue with Rowling. Now, Casual Vacancy is a very very slight improvement over Harry Potter, purely because there is some acknowledgement that it’s a Bad Thing. However, unfortunately Rowling decided to show this by having the victim graphically cutting herself and crying (and presenting self harm as a positive way of lessening pain and coping with bad things). The girl – of course it’s a girl, girls are weak, and she’s also not very attractive so she probably deserved it anyway – being bullied isn’t remotely sympathetically written and the only reason to feel sorry for her is that her tormentor is marginally more unlikeable than she is. In addition the bullying consists of 1% mockery in school and 99% insults posted to her Facebook profile – not, I must stress, the actual cyber bullying that can destroy people, of someone tracking down all her profiles and circumventing her attempts to block them and hounding her friends and generally going all out to constantly harass her. Just the occasional nasty post that she makes zero effort to avoid or delete. It is technically bullying, but a very weak and watery attempt, and this is because – as we will discuss at great length in the future – Rowling actually has no idea whatsoever of what bullying is or what it does to people.

There’s no payoff to this sub-plot, by the way. The girl finally hurts herself enough to get noticed, her family all get very confused about why she did it and why they didn’t notice, the bully apologises in a very half-hearted way but is far more concerned with other bad things happening around him and that’s it. This happens at the very end of the book and is left completely unresolved, along with 90% of the plot threads in the rest of the story.

Anyway, once we’re past the dreary introductory chunk of the story and reach the main plot of people trying to get Barry’s seat on the parish council, things do improve somewhat. This is the best part of the book, but it’s dwelling excessively on all the minutiae of their boring little lives and they’re still all flat one-dimensional tropes. You could sum up every character in two or three words and that really would be their entire personality. Unlike Harry Potter there’s no central narrator/protagonist/hero, there are a lot of different points of view with no single main voice, so all the characters are window dressing… without an actual window, to abuse the metaphor. There’s no narrative bias filter making them oddly one-sided and flat as we saw quite often when everything was coloured by how Harry saw the world, they just are. (There is an upside to this, since it means there’s no character we’re all meant to love and the rest of the cast aren’t either his/her mindless adoring worshippers or absolute evil.) Still, by this point the reader can keep track of who everyone is and there’s a certain amount of subtle humour in all the gentle politics and passive-aggressive suburban interactions. If the whole book was like this, I wouldn’t have a problem – the classism is still here but the really objectionable scenes all take place in the first or final thirds of the book, leaving this magical middle third much more tolerable.

Then we reach the final act, and it all goes very very rapidly downhill. It’s hard to describe – Rowling took a simple plot about village politics, which would have been absolutely fine all on its own with an interesting cast, and tried to make it dark and dramatic and turn it into a thriller. But she didn’t know how to do that, so she just plastered in a lot of dark subject matter and tried to give everyone dramatic lives. Only the characters were so flat and boring that it didn’t work, so she threw in some sex which was not only bad sex but badly-written bad sex, and that didn’t work either. Then she lost her head completely when she realised she didn’t have a dramatic ending…

At this point there is a rape scene.

It’s completely out of place in this sort of book. It has absolutely no bearing on the plot. It’s completely gratuitous and it’s portrayed in such a horrible way that I nearly threw the book across the room and only my promise to summarise the whole thing for Mitchell made me keep reading beyond that point. It’s literally sickening, though mercifully not graphic – the problem comes with the victim’s reaction.

Probably-Krystal is our victim, pretty much inevitably. She gets raped in her home by her mother’s drug dealer. After he leaves there is one sentence about how she won’t tell the police because that’s not what you do if you live on this estate (not because she thinks the police won’t believe her, or because she’s scared the drug dealer will make her pay for telling tales, or any of the other reasons you might expect in these circumstances; just because it’s not the done thing) so she better go ask her friend where to get the morning-after pill because her friend sleeps around so much she’s probably got her own supply. And then immediately, less than five minutes after her rapist has left, probably-Krystal gets a flash of inspiration and decides that she should get her boyfriend to get her pregnant so she can get her own house.

I’m not joking. That’s her response. That’s how Rowling seems to think a sixteen year old girl would react to being raped. She wasn’t even particularly upset, and not in the believable numb-and-completely-in-shock kind of way. She just doesn’t seem to care. There isn’t another scene from her point of view for quite a while but her boyfriend does show up and we see them having sex from his point of view, when she doesn’t insist they use a condom. She isn’t visibly uncomfortable or behaving strangely, and when we do see her again we don’t see her thinking any more about this apparently perfectly ordinary occurrence. This plotline doesn’t get even a token attempt at resolution; nobody ever finds out she was raped or that she was trying to get pregnant to get child benefit/help with housing and the rapist just disappears into the ether. There are no consequences whatsoever and it doesn’t affect anything else in the story. Remove the scene and absolutely nothing would change, except that I wouldn’t hate this book quite so much.

And the last few chapters seem to belong to a totally different book, which then stops very suddenly with everyone’s lives totally in ruins. It all goes downhill very quickly. And weirdly. I can’t even remember how it jumps the rails but somehow we transition from the main plot chugging along not really going anywhere to a complete meltdown where everyone’s lives start to go wrong at once and in the space of a single chapter everything comes crashing down, ending in the sudden fridging of probably-Krystal and her three year old half-brother. They drown, if you’re interested. He falls into the river because she was meant to be babysitting but sneaked off into the bushes with her boyfriend to try to get pregnant and left him unattended, then she jumps in after him but she can’t actually swim, probably because of all that skipping school. The bullying victim from earlier, who can swim, attempts to save them both but fails. (Her bully is probably-Krystal’s boyfriend, by the way. Everyone does tie together quite neatly, I will give it that much.) And these two completely unnecessary deaths that come out of nowhere and really jar with the tone of the entire book shock everyone to their senses, at least up to a point, and we’re left with the sense that they’re each going to pull themselves together and stop being such horrible people. Only we don’t see that, because this is where the book abruptly stops, a couple of pages after these two deaths.

So, that’s The Casual Vacancy. A boring first act, a fairly decent second act, and a not very good third act with some truly offensive moments culminating in an ending that seems as though Rowling was writing in an exam and ran out of time for a conclusion and had to hand it in unfinished. It needed some serious editing and polishing, the rape scene and a few other small things should have been removed, and if the shock twist deaths were going to be kept in then we needed another chapter or two showing how it changed things in the village and resolving the plot. (I don’t think we even learn who gets Barry’s seat on the council, which was the ostensible point of the whole story.)

I will add that I picked up this book actively expecting to dislike it, which will have coloured my impression of it. Even so, I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone reads this.

Coming relatively soon perhaps, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which while it has its own share of issues is nowhere near as terrible and in which nobody gets raped!


Edit: it’s been pointed out that I misremembered the ending of the book. The kid drowns but Krystal actually doesn’t try to save him, she goes home afterwards and commits suicide by drug overdose. Thus invalidating everything I said about an attempt to redeem her character. Oh well.


Posted by on April 9, 2014 in loten


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9 responses to “Let’s start reviewing JK Rowling.

  1. Susan B.

    April 10, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks for this summary/review! I have not read the book. (I loved Harry Potter, in a sort of “how to be a fan of problematic things” way, but I didn’t see anything in my initial impressions of The Casual Vacancy that made me think I’d find any redeeming qualities in it.)

    I followed you here from Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings, by the way (longtime lurker, infrequent commenter). I’m looking forward to reading more from you two!

  2. Ani J. Sharmin

    April 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks for the review! I reviewed “The Casual Vacancy” over at my own blog back in 2012, a little while after reading it. It’s definitely strange, different from other books, but I think I liked it more than you did. (I actually found some of the situations described relatable and was reminded of stuff in my own life.) I thought some of the adult characters were stereotypes, but found the teen characters much more interesting.

    I’ve never actually officially reviewed “Harry Potter” (honestly, I don’t know if I’d be able to sum all my thoughts up in a review, given childhood attachment to it, multiple rereads, etc.), but I do write about it a bit and have been wanting to do a sort of chapter-by-chapter essay series about it.

    Thanks again for the review! Am looking forward to reading your future writing about Rowling’s books!

  3. DawnM

    June 8, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    I had this book on my ‘to be read someday’ pile and I moved it up near the top because I heard you were going to review it. So I just finished it today and then came here to read what you had to say.

    I agree that the book took a long time to get going and then started to get interesting and pleasing in the middle. Then interesting in a train-wreck kind of way towards the end.

    The part where it caught me, finally, was when she started to describe the history of Pagford and The Fields, and how the Pagfordians sulked about it for 60 years. I thought that part was amusing and a well-observed portrait of privilege in action.

    Eventually, I found some of the characters gained my affection. I cared about what happened to Kay the social worker with the passive-aggressive not-boyfriend, Tessa the guidance councillor with the rebellious son, Andrew with his secret crush and abusive father, and most of all Krystal.

    The synopsis says “Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising”. “Black” I will grant, “comic” not very often, few thoughts were provoked. None of the places the plot-train ended up were particularly surprising, although I suppose it’s surprising that it ended where it did and didn’t include some happy-ending redemptions for at least a few of the characters.

    Some of the things I noticed that make it seem similar to Harry Potter:

    – Physical description as characterization. In Harry Potter, things like physical appearance are exaggerated because it’s a fantasy, but even here appearance is a short-cut to character. For example, having large breasts seems to tie closely with unsanctioned sexuality. And the two obese characters are rich, privileged semi-villains.

    – Evocative descriptions of place. It’s no Hogwarts, but I have taken away a somewhat vivid impression of the lovely town of Pagford. I want to go there.

    – An interest in the dynamics of privileged in-groups vs less privileged out-groups and in those who cross the boundaries. Rich vs poor are considered both here and in Harry Potter. I always thought Wizards vs Muggles was a metaphor for racism. In this book, Barry, the guy who dies, was a person from the out-group (The Fields) who successfully integrated into the in-group (Pagford) and who wants to help lift others along with him; the characters spend a lot of time debating whether this is a good idea or not.

    One of the things that made me the most unhappy about this book was that Rowling wrote to the trope where women who have not-approved-by-society sex must be deeply punished. Mo who had a fling with a married man gets to be ugly in everything she wears and gets to have an ugly voice, too. Kay, who followed a man that she thought she had a future with, gets a big pay cut, may lose her close connection to her daughter, and gets to see her social-work clients die under her nose. Krystal, a teen who has sex just because she wants to, has to suffer the horrible pain and guilt of losing her brother and is ultimately fated to die. Even mild transgressions are not spared. Samantha, who just fantasizes about sex with younger men without acting on it (much) is punished with an alcohol addiction. Parminder has a strong platonic affection for a man who is not her husband and she has her GP licence suspended.

    Another disappointment I had was with the way she talks about the less privileged groups in this book. I agree with your assessment that all of the characters from The Fields are portrayed as uniformly stupid and unworthy, with the exception of Krystal who might be considered “worthy because she has heart but the stupidity overwhelms it too bad so sad”. This contrasts with what I took away from the Harry Potter books with their “poor Weasleys are better than rich Malfoys” and “Muggles are people too” messages.

  4. Ophelia Benson

    June 28, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    You’re so right about the class aspect. Ugh.

    Krystal doesn’t drown (I just finished it last night, so memory hasn’t degraded yet!). She locks herself in the house while the cops and her mother batter at the door, and ODs on the heroin that was conveniently there.

    • Loten

      June 29, 2014 at 6:18 am

      …oops. That shows how much attention I was paying by the end of this terrible book, doesn’t it? 😛

  5. JoWrites

    July 31, 2014 at 7:25 am

    “Rowling actually has no idea whatsoever of what bullying is or what it does to people.”

    I love this comment. Are you (or have you already) elaborated on this in another post? I will just bask in this sentence for a while, because I find so few people who are willing to admit this and it just feels good to read it.

    • Loten

      July 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm

      We’re going to be starting a complete in-depth review of the Harry Potter series later this year and we will definitely be looking at how JK writes about bullying in some detail 🙂


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