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It was reported that JK Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was going to be very dark and include adult themes and language. I knew I was not going back to Hogwarts when I opened the book, but I was surprised about the nature of this story. This post contains plot spoilers.

Initially, it seemed like the book was about a sleepy town’s local election from the vantage point of the 40-something generation. It was not a topic that particularly excited me, but I was drawn in by Rowling’s excellent story-telling and the way she subtly ridiculed each of her characters as she introduced them. However, as the plot unfolded, the story became less about the adults’ world, and more about the teenagers and the brazen power that they unleashed upon their parents.

The main families represented included the Prices, the Walls, the Jawanadas, and the Weedons. There are excellent facets of the novel that are related to the Fairweathers, Bawdens, Mollisons, Maureen, and Gavin, but the heaviest drama is related to the four very dysfunctional families I just named. In all four cases, the teens are victimized in some way by their parents and retaliate in some brash way that has permanent consequences. The teens, with their bold confidence and righteousness, hold all the power.

The Price family is plagued by a cowardly thief of a father, who is prone to violence against his wife and children. When Simon announces his candidacy for Pagford Parish Council, he seems to become even more violent under the strain. After he is particularly abusive toward his family one night, Andrew (Arf) comes up with a plan to sabotage his campaign. After he posts the truth of his father’s business deals, there are cascading consequences of his father’s job loss, the family’s move to Reading, and his peers’ copycat posts on the council’s website.

The Wall family is led by Colin, an administrator at the school all the kids attend. Colin is plagued by an OCD-fueled paranoia that cripples him. His adopted son, Stuart (Fats), is constantly pushing his buttons and he too becomes violent against his child. This inspires Fats to publicize his paralyzing fear that he will be accused of touching a student and effectively causes Colin to be unable to work and passively withdraw from the campaign.

The Jawanda family is represented by Parminder, who is stoic and extremely critical of her daughter Sukhvinder. She overtly prefers her other two children and neglects Sukhvinder. Sukhvinder is also tormented at school by Fats and threatened by Krystal Weedon. When Sukhvinder tries to confess her issues with Krystal to her mom, and is berated once again for her shortcomings, she decides to retaliate by posting gossip about her mother’s love for the late Barry Fairbrother on the council’s website. The stress of this post and the election itself causes Parminder to snap and lose her temper at a council meeting and ultimately costs her her job as the town’s General Practitioner.

The Weedon family is essentially led by a teenager, Krystal, who is trying to keep her junkie mother and 3 year old brother together. The mother, Terri, does not do a good job of looking after either of her kids even when she is clean. Krystal has behavioral problems, but she does try to keep her brother in preschool, get herself to school, and keep track of her mother’s habits. After Krystal suffers rape in her own home by her mother’s dealer, she becomes determined to get pregnant by Fats, so she can get a teen mom subsidy and have a safe place to live with her baby and her little brother, Robbie.

When Krystal finds the drug dealer in her mother’s home again, she takes off with Robbie and makes a plan to meet Fats in the park. In her desperate quest to become impregnated there, she takes her eyes off of Robbie and he drowns in the nearby river. With his death on her hands, Krystal intentionally overdoses herself on her mother’s heroin stash.

The adults in this story were all the initial perpetrators of abuse and neglect, but the teenagers made decisions that had extreme and tragic consequences. The adults were always behaving badly while going about their day to day lives. The teens made active decisions to cause changes in their lives. They may not have realized the full consequences of their actions, but they knew they were doing something big and intentional.

Yes, this story has adult themes, but these are themes that impact real teenagers too. The language, sex, drugs, and family drama will not be foreign to most teens. The politics may bore some, but that is just the backdrop to the real story of teenagers and the power struggle with their families. I’d say this is a Young Adult novel disguised as an adult fiction.

Rachel Beard

This article was written by a Hypable user! Learn more and write your own right here.

  • farah

    I totally agree. I think the young-adult elements are what kept me interested in the book. I actually only kept reading cause i wanted to find out what would happen to the teenagers.
    thnx for writing this :)

    • http://twitter.com/SunnyRachel Rachel Beard

      Thank you, Farah!! It is so fun to see that others agree with my review. I was really surprised about this book!

      • farah

        i think surprised was an understatement for me!! but i still liked the book ..so that was something at least. And I always enjoy reading reviews:)..of any kind really but all things Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling especially.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.l.volsch Jen Volsch

    I agree with you. I must say I was surprised at how much the teenagers impacted the story. They not only impacted it, but we were also lead through the story through their eyes. I had heard how adult this book was, and it does have adult themes, but I felt it was definitely a young adult novel.

    • http://twitter.com/SunnyRachel Rachel Beard

      Thanks, Jen! I really thought the story was going to be about the election and revolve around the adults, but when I got to the end, I realized it was definitely about the teens. I am still reeling about the ending, but it was cathartic to put my thoughts in writing!

  • Becca

    Hmm I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the issues are ones that teenagers can relate to as well as adults, but that’s because they’re some of the most important, fundamental issues of life. They’re HUMAN themes, not adult themes or teenage themes. I don’t think teenagers being able to relate to a piece of fiction makes it YA…

    • http://twitter.com/SunnyRachel Rachel Beard

      I see your point, Becca. I think because the teens are central to the plot and make the most impact on the story, it makes it YA. Just very adult YA. :)

      • http://www.facebook.com/aaccss Alex Smith

        Technically the person who made the most impact on the story was Barry who was an adult…

  • Jason

    Hmm. I see your point, but just because a novel has adolescent characters doesn’t necessarily means it’s FOR adolescents. The themes of the book are very politically and socially interspersed, and I just think that that, in addition to the content, makes it more suited for adults. Although the fact that it has teenage characters simply makes it more relevant for teenagers than without them. J.K. Rowling is very comfortable with writing about teenagers. One of the major ties that joined together the characters of the book was that they were all missing something (so, a “vacancy,”) and did things to try to fill that void. Teenagers deal with that every day, and so of course their actions would be more extreme and consequential.

    • http://twitter.com/SunnyRachel Rachel Beard

      That’s really interesting, Jason! I hadn’t thought about the fact that the “vacancy” itself was a theme among all the characters. Mulling that over now…

  • Marly

    it’s great to read a review about TCV that doesn’t simply insult it for not being Harry Potter. That being said, you made some interesting points. It is, in the end, the teenagers that make decisions, but I think the intention was for the family structure to be the focus. It seemed that that structure was supposed to be reflected in the disjointed town-structure and in the themes of problems of all adults and teenagers.

  • http://about.me/dshana Shana Debusschere

    I see your point, but just because a book deals with adolescense, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s for teens. Not to say it can’t be read by teens, (I’m currently three days away of saying goodbye to my “teenhood”), but when I think of Young Adult, it’s not at all what I’d associate with this book. All adults went through adolescense, so they’ll probably be able to relate as well. Of course this book is going to have a very young audience, (in comparison to mose adult novels), but that’s all due to Harry Potter. And I guess that sometimes it’s a thin line between adult and young adult. But since this book is a reflection of a small society (reflecting a bigger society), and does not focus on the teens alone, (the teens are part of the society), I believe it’s an adult book.

  • http://twitter.com/BrokenSilence37 AEP

    I’d have to disagree that this is young adult fiction. I think it is very clearly an adult novel that may appeal to teenagers. Or rather, it may be appropriate for some mature teenagers to handle. It’s certainly not targeted towards teens though. Like other people have noted in the comments, the themes explored with the characters are all very human, not necessarily limited to targeting one demographic like YA fiction has to.

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