Here’s what you already know: The Casual Vacancy is about the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother in a small English town named Pagford. Barry’s death leaves a lot of holes in this town, from his open seat on the town council (which is what the term “casual vacancy” means) to his role as a mentor and coach to the town’s youth.
Pagford is beautiful to look at and peaceful on its surface, but this is a book that explores the hearts and minds of the people that live there. It’s about the dark “underbelly” that exists among these seemingly perfect and well-meaning families in this town.
If you find this exploration depressing, I think that’s Rowling’s intent. In Harry Potter we got good versus evil. A few people struggled with what side they were on, but most people didn’t. Pagford is real life: we don’t have a side. Most of us are kind and mean at the same time, smart but ignorant, biased but open-minded. We’re giving to the community but selfish at home, or vice versa. We think our intentions are good but in actuality we care more about what people think. We compete with our neighbors to feel good about ourselves, and sometimes that means wanting other people to fail.
The main characters are six families: the Mollisons, who are sort of the “First Family” of Pagford; the Walls, who run the local high school (Dad’s the headmaster, Mom’s the guidance counselor); the Jawandas, a Pakistani family who are from Birmingham and struggle with Pagford’s small town narrow-mindedness; the Bawdens, a single social worker and her daughter who just recently moved to town; the Prices (abusive father); and the Weedons, an impoverished, drug-addicted mother that lives in The Fields, which is basically the wrong side of the tracks.
This book reminded me that Rowling may be the richest woman in the world, but she also knows something about poverty. One thing I hope readers will take away is a better understanding of the cycle of poverty– from the struggle with addiction, the exposure to violence, and the public blame and rejection. Unfortunately it’s much harder than most of us realize to climb out of that cycle.
I was also reminded that Rowling really knows something about teenagers to write them the way she does. The teenagers in Harry Potter weren’t exactly realistic, but you did get real emotion: insecurity, emotion, first kisses. Here, you get that and a lot more. This book reminded me what it was like to be a teenager, in heartbreaking detail.
You care about the adults but you also hate them, especially when they turn a blind eye to their children. But if you don’t ache for Krystal, Sukhvinder, Andrew, Gaia, and Fats, then you’re missing something.
This book won’t be for everyone. It’s a slow, meandering story even though it doesn’t cover a lot of time. And while it’s filled with sex, drugs and violence, not much happens. There are lots of characters and you might wish Rowling focused on just a few – or made those few a little more likeable than she did. It’s dark – like you’re being sucked into a whirlpool and drowning.
But for me, this book really worked. It sort of reminded me of an older Stephen King novel, like The Stand, where he gives you a ton of characters but really gets in their heads. And it isn’t so much what’s happening that’s the story – it’s what people are thinking and feeling.
Is The Casual Vacancy literature? I have no idea, but then that’s always a tricky question. It’s well-written in a plain-spoken kind of way. Has small-town bias, racism and class warfare been done better? I’m sure it has.
If you’re looking for Harry Potter, this book will disappoint. In every other way, it didn’t.