Published by Little Brown and Company on September 27th, 2012
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but 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?
The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that by simply reading the premise, I don’t think this is a book I would normally pick up. It’s not that it’s completely out of my comfort zone or something, but it’s definitely J.K. Rowling’s name on the cover that got me so excited. Harry Potter changed my life, like much of my generation, but if I had to name one thing about that series that blew me away it would be the writing. I absolutely love Rowling’s style, the way she creates a world and develops her characters. To me, it’s a flawless writing style that since Harry Potter’s last adventure in 2007 I’ve been missing immensely. The premise, while not being one I would normally read, is quite intriguing.
Let me start by saying this novel is not for everyone. And now I’m not going to be cliché and refer to the drug use, the sex, bullying, rape, whatever else conservative parents are now hating Rowling for, but I mean that it’s a story that’s not driven by action but that tries to make you think. It’s what I like to call subtly beautiful. And by beautiful, don’t assume it’s a wonderful, happy, happily ever after type story – because it really is quite tragic. But it zooms in on this small community and all of the peoples’ lives as they interact with each other, with as the main focus the election taking place to replace Barry Fairbrother’s seat after his death. Each family has their own drama and to be honest, I wouldn’t wish those families lives on anyone. They’re all pretty much really messed up, and each character has huge flaws (right at the end of the book I thought about how the seven deadly sins are represented, each character exhibiting at least one of them – and how these sins are suitably punished, either by retribution or unhappiness). But it’s so realistic. I think basically everyone would know someone who’s gone through those similar issues or see parts of themselves in some of the characters. There’s so much truth to their stories. And it also makes the great point that even if from the outside you think there’s a family that’s got everything sorted and is pretty much “perfect”, there’s always something that’s just a bit messed up. Basically: it makes you think about how you perceive others around you. I might even go so far as to say that it’s a good idea for parents and teenagers to read this novel – it may very well give them a reality check about certain familial issues, and how they interact with each other.
The realism carries on in the fact that there is not one main character, “the hero”, who drives the action, saves the town, etc. etc. In fact, Rowling herself has said that if she had to pick one of her characters to be the hero it would probably be Barry Fairbrother, who dies in the first three pages. It’s more of a story of what happens after the hero dies, which is quite unique. All the characters are left behind to pick up the pieces and fill the shoes of the hero who is sorely missed by some, while others are rejoicing.
Even though Rowling has left the fantasy genre, she still creates a world with so much finesse. So many characters, but each of them is very distinctive. I loved Fats from the get-go (his authentic vs inauthentic obsession hits close to home), and then heard that it was Rowling’s own favorite character from the novel, so that made me a completely happy fangirl. But anyway, I digress. I also absolutely grew to love Kay. While there are so many characters, as I said, each of them is very distinctive, and I didn’t once get confused as to who we were focused on at the moment. However, this novel may not be suitable for readers who get confused when there are so many characters to keep track of. I can also imagine that the book is best read in long sittings – it’s not one you can put down and pick back up a lot: you’ll lose track of who’s who and what has already happened. That being said, it’s not difficult to read this in long sittings. Rowling puts so much intrigue and development in each page that it kept me reading, wanting to find out about the details of each of those characters’ lives.
The story was surprisingly good. I’m surprised by how much it really sucked me in. The political debate involving ‘The Fields’ is extremely gripping, as you hear both sides of the story: how the “trashy” inhabitants class down the proud parish of Pagford, but also how those inhabitants should be given opportunities to improve and how the citizens of Pagford should be more accepting. It’s a debate that really gets you thinking about your own political standpoints. I love how by hearing both sides of the story I almost got a bit confused, not sure which side I agreed with because there was some sound logic in both sides. It’s also such a realistic depiction of society today – I see issues like this in the news all the time – and that to me is beautiful.
While there are a lot of British legal/cultural/societal elements to the story, it’s not confusing to read as an outsider. Rowling spends just the right amount of time and space explaining these elements, and the explanations blend seamlessly into the story. The issue of classism translates really well and overall it’s just wonderfully constructed.
In all honestly I hate not giving our queen, J.K., a 5 star review, but it probably comes down to the fact that this is not my usual genre. I do however feel like it’s a book I could reread multiple times, and I feel like each time you’d read it again, you’d take something different away from it, notice different things. One of those. So I definitely really liked it – hence the four stars. Whether I would recommend it or not is a different issue because this is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.
Summing Up:I think if you’re really still on the fence about whether you want to check it out or not (lord knows my review is probably not helping the decision making process), read this excerpt of an interview with J.K. Rowling. It’s her explanation for the title of the book but right away just summarizes the themes of the book and what it’s really about.
In my head, the working title for a long time was ‘Responsible,’ because for me this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.” Two years in, she picked up the standard British handbook for local administrators. “I needed it to check certain abstruse points. And in there I came across the phrase ‘a casual vacancy.’ Meaning, when a seat falls vacant through death or scandal. And immediately I knew that that was the title… I was dealing not only with responsibility but with a bunch of characters who all have these little vacancies in their lives, these emptinesses in their lives, that they’re all filling in various ways… And it’s death! The casual vacancy, the casualness with which death comes down. You expect a fanfare, you expect some sort of pathos or grandeur to it. And, you know, the first big death I ever suffered was my mother’s, and it was that that was so shocking: just gone. J.K. Rowling