JK Rowling: The Casual Vacancy reviews - what the critics think

What do book reviewers think of JK Rowling's first adult novel, and her first book since the blockbusting Harry Potter series?

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JK Rowling: The Casual Vacancy reviews - what the critics think
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Radio Times staff

It’s been one of the most highly anticipated literary launches of all time. But today, after months of secrecy and speculation, JK Rowling’s first adult novel, and her first since completing the bestselling Harry Potter series, is released. 

According to its publishers, Little Brown Book Group, The Casual Vacancy is a “black comic, thought provoking, and constantly surprising” story set in an English village, Pagford, during the Second World War. 

Pre-orders of the book exceeded a million copies, and without a shadow of a doubt, Rowling’s novel will be next week’s number one bestseller. 

But what do the critics make of The Casual Vacancy? Well, many have speed-read its 512 pages overnight, and here’s what they’ve got to say:

The Guardian said “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it's not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand, perhaps creeping into the Richard and Judy Book Club, or being made into a three-part TV serial.”

They are also quick to note that “the author's first book for adults features drugs, sex and swearing – things that Harry Potter probably never dreamed of.”

The Telegraph awarded the novel three stars, claiming: "JK Rowling bewilders her fans with an uneven, often harrowing book"

"Rowling’s first adult novel, is sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair. One teenager cuts herself to relieve her misery, another commits suicide. Online pornography is described in gynaecological detail."

"It feels as if the author has unleashed all the swearing, sex and vitriol that have been off-limits to her since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. As for the ending, dear God, it is so howlingly bleak that it makes Thomas Hardy look like PG Wodehouse."

"At the end of The Casual Vacancy, there is no wand to wave, no spell to make the horror go away. It is pitiless. One child lies dead, another drowned; almost nobody in the story loves anybody else, and the author isn’t much kinder."

The Mirror on the other hand gave five stars to the novel, concluding: "This is adult stuff that requires a very broad mind as well as patience. But there’s heart here and humour too".

"This is a novel about intervention and non-intervention, about ­prejudice, pretension, snobbery, NIMBYism and pettiness.

"It’s also about loving and caring, for both family and community, and trying to get that impossible balance right.

"Of course, Rowling didn’t have to write this novel but she has done a rather brave thing – and pulled it off magnificently."

The Scotsman commented, "her first novel for five years and her first to be aimed entirely at a grown-up readership is daringly different from her Harry Potter books."

"It is far grittier, bleaker (and, occasionally, funnier) than I had expected, and – the acid test – I suspect it would do well even if its author’s name weren’t JK Rowling."

The Evening Standard said: "There are no unicorns, nor anything at all fantastical in The Casual Vacancy. But there's a lot of sex and drugs, rape, self-harming, general human nastiness, misery and death. What the book has in common with Harry Potter is the ability to marshal an extraordinary number of characters into a coherent narrative, and a prose style so clunkily over-descriptive and repetitiously structured that it presents quite a barrier to the reader with any interest in language, until you are able to forget it, like reading a ropey translation, and concentrate on the story instead."

"The problem for Rowling's legions of fans will be that she has forgotten to include any basic likeability in her characters here or any real suspense as to what will happen – or deliberately chosen not to supply it, now she no longer needs to do anything other than what she wants. The book is quite punishing to read and the view of human nature it takes is more fundamentally lowering than that of the most cynical French aphorist."

And The New York Times posted a scathing review of Rowling's change of genre: "Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual VAcancy is not only disappointing - it's dull. The novel reads like an odd mash-up of a dark soap operal like Peyton Place with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives.

"It's as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling's miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two-, never mind three-dimensional tale."

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