Some time back, I’d mentioned that I was looking forward to the eventual release of J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. Turns out I had very good reason to be excited. I wrapped up the final chapters of the book about an hour ago, and I have not felt such a powerful emotional response to a book in a long time. Bittersweet is the best word to describe it, but then, the novel is set in a far more realistic world than Rowling’s other works.
Rowling’s novel is set in the fictional town of Pagford, a seemingly ideal English village where a seat on the local parish council is the highest life achievement to which many aspire. The parish council is about to deal with several major issues, including a low-income housing development that tarnishes Pagford’s image (The Fields) and a local addiction clinic with a questionable success rate, called Bellchapel. Due to a deadlocked council, it seems that neither problem will be sufficiently resolved when the unthinkable occurs.
On his wedding anniversary, Barry Fairbrother, parish council member and longtime supporter of the Fields and Bellchapel, suffers a brain aneurysm and dies, leaving his seat on the council open in a casual vacancy. The story is primarily character driven, with reactions to Barry’s death serving as motivation for most. In the wake of Barry’s passing, Pagford splits into three main groups. We are privy to the perspectives of the pro-Fielders and their staunch opponents as well as the teenagers who are caught up in the conflict. Barry’s death means that an election will have to be held to fill his seat on the council, and each side strives to arrange for someone who shares their views to be appointed. The buildup to the election sends ripples through the community, as no one is fully prepared for the revelations that will rise to the surface. Unrequited love, racism, drug addiction, teen sex, and dirty politics are only the beginning in this unflinching look at small towns and modern life. Narrative shifts from character to character in a manner akin to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, allowing Rowling to place us inside the heads of girls who are being bullied at school, heroin addicts who are being threatened with the loss of their children, corrupt businessmen who live with the constant fear of being caught, and more. Barry’s death shatters the veneer of Pagford, and life there will never be the same.
Rowling’s book is a drastic departure from her earlier writing, and I have to say that it’s a great step for her. Whether she continues along similar lines in future books is uncertain, but she has crafted a wonderful exploration of the sides of humanity that many writers are afraid to examine. The Casual Vacancy is intense, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but I loved it. It’s a damn good novel. I would highly recommend that you give it a read, but be aware that, like life, it’s rarely pretty.