THE CASUAL VACANCY
by J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown, September 2012
Hardcover, 503 pages
The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother: a husband, father, coach of the girls’ high school rowing team, and member of the parish council of the picturesque English town of Pagford. His death leaves a “casual vacancy” in the village council, and the town must elect a replacement. Vying for the council seat are multiple forceful personalities with their own secrets, vendettas, and aspirations.
As elections can sometimes do, this one brings out the worst in people; dirty secrets are posted on the council website by anonymous sources close to the candidates, damaging the reputations of formerly respectable residents of the town.
At the center of the battle is the issue of The Fields, a council estate (similar to American projects) that has been forced under Pagford’s jurisdiction, and the Bellchapel addiction treatment center used by many Fields residents. Having grown up in The Fields and gone on to prosper, Barry was an advocate for keeping The Fields under Pagford’s jurisdiction. However, others view the estate as a blight to their village and want to foist the responsibility for it back onto their neighboring town; they don’t want to pay for the upkeep of the housing project, and they don’t want children from unstable dregs-of-society families tainting their comfortably middle class schools.
(Note: Aside from this paragraph, I am not going to mention the Harry Potter series in this review. I feel that these two works of fiction are such completely different entities (children/all ages vs. adult, fantasy vs. realism, the best-selling children’s book of all time vs. something completely new) that it would be unfair to compare the two.)
I feel like Rowling took on a lot with this novel. She tackles the weighty topic of government aid for the poor and the responsibility citizens have for supporting those who are down and out. Although some of the smug middle-class characters see The Fields and the addiction center as drains on town, others recognize the integration as necessary for helping those born into destitution make more of their lives. Barry, for example, was able to leave The Fields and build a better life for himself because the estate being under Pagford’s jurisdiction allowed him to enroll in the quality Pagford school system. Similarly, a social worker recognizes that the Bellchapel addiction clinic is the only thing enabling one woman to gain a tenuous hold on sobriety, develop a measure of control over her life, and keep her family together. It’s a weighty topic, but I think Rowling makes a good argument for supporting the fallen members of society.
There were a few things I didn’t like about this book. For one thing, there were A LOT of characters. At one point, I got so confused trying to remember who was who and what their relationships were that I made a reference list of all of the characters with notes connecting the different families and individuals. There are 32 characters on that list, about 20 of whom are vital to the story. I understand that Rowling is trying to represent the many facets and complex social strata of this town, but it gets to be a bit much. (That said, when I think about it, I can’t come up with any characters that should be cut from the story; each of them are vital to telling the story of this town.) It doesn’t help that most of the characters are such horrible people. Krystal, a crass member of Barry’s crew team and the daughter of an addict in the Fields, is really the only one who ever tugged at my heartstrings.
However, I did like how the novel comes full circle. Barry Fairbrother’s death at the beginning causes the town to break out in warfare; children broadcast their parents’ secrets, wives betray husbands, and everyone is miserable and mean. It takes the tragic deaths of two young people at the end of the book to make people step back, recognize their follies, and reevaluate their prejudices. The first death is the catalyst for strife, dividing the town, and the two later deaths help reunite the warring sides and restore balance. Although tragic, it has a nice symmetry.
Overall, I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. It is ambitious and certainly shows that J.K. Rowling can write a deeply complex story for adults, but most of the characters are so toxic that it was hard for me to enjoy reading about them. I think this is a very good book, but it’s just not the type that I tend to enjoy reading.