The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Published by Little, Brown and Company
When Barry Fairbrother dies of an aneurysm in a parking lot, the town of Pagford is thrown into chaos. Not only are the gossip mills working overtime, but Barry’s death throws into disarray the Pagford town council, which now has a casual vacancy. Barry was one of the leading supporters of the Fields, the low-income housing at the edge of town and the nearby addiction clinic. Without him, Howard Mollison may just be able push through the reassignment of the Fields to the larger town nearby and the retraction of the addiction clinic’s lease. In the days following Barry’s death, many long-dormant hostilities flare up, as the election to fill his seat forces people to examine their own beliefs and relationships.
At its heart, The Casual Vacancy is about the politics of small town life, both the actual governance and decisions made by a (theoretically) elected few and the politics of interpersonal relationships in a place where everyone is connected to everyone else in one way or another. There is a strong theme of social responsibility and the social contract in The Casual Vacancy, as citizens of Pagford debate what should become of the Fields. Opinions run the gamut, as prominent characters include the old guard such as the Mollisons, as well as a young woman growing up in the fields with a drug addicted mother, a social worker, and many others.
It is this thread that makes the timing of the The Casual Vacancy release in the United States so interesting, as many similar issues are being debated in the lead up to our national election. Obviously with a world-wide English release this is unlikely to have been calculated, but I can see this working both for and against The Casual Vacancy, depending on the reader. Many US readers may not want to indulge in political rancor and electioneering during this final stretch of a seemingly interminable political cycle; others, however, may have a heightened appreciation of just what the stakes are in this fictional election due to the high profile of political decisions in the US at the moment.
All this is not to say that civic politics is the be all and end all of The Casual Vacancy, relationships are just as crucial to the story Rowling is telling. There are tense relationships between parents and children, affairs, relationships that have changed over time so they are no longer recognizable to the people within them. There are friendships and mentoring relationships as well. Although not unendingly bleak, there is certainly more darkness and less support in most of these relationships than in Rowling’s Harry Potter wizard world. There are times that Pagford seems to have echoes of her Muggle world, Howard Mollison called to mind Vernon Dursley occasionally, albeit the more complex Vernon Dursley of the later books.
The Casual Vacancy probably has much less universal appeal than Rowling’s Harry Potter books, both for the cynical look a life and for the focus on politics. The writing is not going to blow anyone away – and Rowling uses parentheses strangely to indicate that characters are recalling something, sometimes with up to half a page contained in a single pair – but it is strong enough that it generally does not distract from the fascinating story Rowling is telling.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.