The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter. Let that be clear from the get-go. Many reviewers and fans have compared the two unfavorably, saying that J.K. Rowling’s newest venture is poor by virtue of not involving wizards. I will make no such ludicrous statements, mainly because I love Harry Potter far too much to tarnish it by demanding each and every book is a carbon copy of its tone and characters. This is a book meant to stand on its own, and it must for people to read it honestly. I can safely assure you that The Casual Vacancy stands wonderfully well, if you’ll give it a chance.
It is of note, perhaps, that this is a wildly new direction for Rowling. The book is marketed as an adult novel. I thought this was merely to establish herself as a “serious” author and create a distinctive target age group who would not be disappointed by a lack of wands and potions, but this is a very adult book. There are mature, real themes here. Sex, drugs, profanity, sexual and physical abuse, adultery, self-mutilation, suicide, obesity, classism, racism, and homophobia are all touched – and sometimes expounded – upon. There are many passages from the book I could not fit to print on a website frequented by young teens. These are themes that need to be explored and scrutinized, and Rowling often has profound observations on them, especially near the end, but the sex especially can become gratuitous.
The story revolves around members of Pagford, a small town “English idyll”, as the book jacket tells us. It is quaint with its perfectly mannered houses and attractive steeple and hills and river and glamorous manor Sweetlove House just around the corner. The only thing stopping Pagford from attaining virtual protection is an annex known as the Fields, a housing project filled with druggies and vagrants unfit to claim citizenship to a beautiful town like Pagford. The town council has been in a headlock for decades, arguing about whether or not they should keep the annex or lump it on to the neighboring city. Then something extraordinary happens that shifts the tide. Barry Fairbrother, the councilor leading the movement to keep the Fields, has a startling aneurysm.
The whole town is swept up with gossip and speculation. There is to be a town vote for the new council member, which very well may decide the fate of the Fields once and for all. The three candidates are all characteristically unfit to serve on the council, and everyone knows it. The situation is exacerbated by The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, who’s taken to making defamatory proclamations – which are usually true – about individual councilors and candidates on the council forums.
There are, by my count, twenty two major characters, and a dozen or two more secondary players. Howard Mollison is reigning council chair, presiding over Pagford behind the counter of his delicatessen. He is never seen without two women at his side, whom viciously hate each other – Shirley, Howard’s wife, and Maureen, his business partner. The two are often interchangeable in terms of cruelty and idiocy. Howard is pushing for his son, Miles, to fill the place left casually vacant by Barry Fairbrother. His wife Samantha grows more and more restless in their marriage each dinner party.
Colin and Tessa Wall are the kindly associate principal and guidance counselor, respectively, and they’re probably the most likable characters in the novel. Their son Fats is a vindictive sociopath obsessed with living life “authentically”, which extends to cyberbullying the fat Sikh girl Sukhvinder down the street, whose mother Parminder was Barry Fairbrother’s biggest ally on the town council.
Ruth and Simon Price are the unhappily married couple on the top of the hill. Simon is profane and volatile, Ruth is timid and tactless. Their son Andrew wishes he could kill his father and start dating the school’s newest and most attractive student, Gaia. Gaia’s mother Kay is a social worker who’s relocated their family so she can pursue a relationship with Barry’s friend Gavin, who’s more interested in spending time with Barry’s grieving widow Mary.
At the center of it all is the Weedon family, a Fields clan Barry virtually adopted in his pro-Fields and crusade and which Kay is the social worker for. Terri is a junkie, in and out of an addiction clinic. She is virtually useless and could very well lose everything if she uses again. Her daughter Krystal is left to care for her baby brother Robbie, despite being unable to manage her own life.
These characters and more become entangled with each other in true Rowling fashion. The book moves slowly (more Austen than the Dickensian Hogwarts), and news travels around the town over the course of a chapter or two, but when finished we can fully appreciate the complex web of weaknesses and motivations one man’s death catalyzed. What’s so remarkably different from Harry Potter’s character tree is how cynical their relationships are. There isn’t one happy marriage or teenager who likes their parents. Characters harbor secret, vindictive hatreds of their coworkers and family members. This is not a happy book.
It may be said that these are not difficult targets, and many of them begin as caricatures. Teenage boys like sex and drug-addled moms and attractive women turn into unhappy housewives and therapists and social workers have worse family lives than their clients! Even if the characters aren’t too terribly original, that isn’t Rowling’s strength. Her Potter oeuvre is almost exclusively composed of fantasy archetypes and comic caricatures. But she is a master of fleshing them out, of awarding them backstories, revelations, and moments of profound character development. Rowling’s conversation feels distinctive yet immersive and real.
Rowling’s kindness to her characters, even if she blatantly hates some of them, is always evident in their ironic and fitting fates. Each has a masterfully orchestrated character arc, and The Casual Vacancy allows many arcs to end in tragedy or compromise. However, Rowling isn’t anything special as a crafter of prose. While the later Potter books had some exceptional passages, Rowling’s faults were always (more than) cloaked by her storytelling. Some sentences are flimsy and dead, and she uses a “tell not show” policy in imparting her characters’ thoughts and feelings that can be straining. The author’s real gifts are found in her storytelling. The structure is impeccable, the pacing lackadaisical at first and intense near the end. An infectiously sad aura pervades the proceedings that’ll leave you pondering your own views and relationships.
There is one flaw in her story, however, and its in her treatment of the Fields. Virtually every character is connected to the issue in some way or another, and the characters themselves stress the importance of the election on the Fields vote. We rightfully expect that the results of the election will determine the fate of the Fields – and the Weedons. But it doesn’t, because the vote is scheduled a few days before the election, sucking out all the tension and supposed importance of the vote in doing so.
The Casual Vacancy is marketed as a comic tragedy. I agree with the second part. The novel leaves you in a deeply melancholy reverie, and in a way it’s a reverse of It’s a Wonderful Life. A man dies and reveals the world around him to be cruel and unsatisfying. The people he was kind to are selfish and prejudiced and small in their troubles. Not very many of them like each other, and perhaps the happiest ending in the book is granted to two characters who maybe might be able to hang out with each other, in the future. With Harry Potter, Rowling showed us the boundless power of the human spirit. Harry Potter is a fantasy. The Casual Vacancy is a sharp, savage dose of reality that has each and every one of us caught in front of its mocking sneer.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★★★★ (9/10)
FINAL SAY: The Casual Vacancy isn’t always fun to read, but it’s an incredibly deep and worthwhile experience that holds a mirror up to our society and to ourselves: our fears, our weaknesses, and our struggles.