Book review: The Casual Vacancy

By Valentina Perez

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s debut adult novel, should not be taken lightly. This 500-page book is a first-hand look at various manifestations of disappoints and failings of human nature, yet it also demonstrates the complexity behind personal actions. In the small, picturesque, and fictional British town of Pagford, filled with mostly petty people, Rowling creates intense drama for each individual and the town as a whole.

The Casual Vacancy deals with the aftermath of the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a well-liked parish councilor who delicately held together the various social and political factions of the town. His passing creates a “casual vacancy,” an open seat on the parish council, setting off a fight for the empty seat. Through the course of the election, the serious but hidden tensions of the town are revealed. The most controversial issue is the Fields, an estate of public housing. Traditional Pagfordians see the Fields as an imposition from the larger neighboring city of Yarvil, a drag on parish resources spent on junkies who attend the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, and an overall blight on all that is good and right about wholesome Pagford. The fight over parish control of the Fields and Bellchapel ultimately eclipses Barry Fairbother’s casual vacancy that starts the story and exposes marital struggles, teenage angst and parental attempts to handle it, class conflict, and cultural divides.

The Somewhat Good, the Bad, and the Worse

No character in the novel is truly likeable. They have occasional, fleeting moments of goodness or sympathy. The reader spends the story placing each character on a spectrum of disagreeability in relation to their fellow townspeople. A prime example is Howard and Shirley Mollison, long-time residents of Pagford who see themselves as fixtures of Pagford and all that the town stands for. They are also the leaders of the anti-Fields “movement” in Pagford. Howard and Shirley, like others, mourn Barry Fairbrother’s death very briefly, and only because it is the socially acceptable thing to do. Their thoughts reveal their almost immediate scheming to capture Fairbrother’s newly vacant seat so as to augment the anti-Fields faction and finally get rid of the Fields. Howard and Shirley are gossipy, petty, prejudiced, and entitled.

The novel’s teenagers are the most vibrant, relatable, and best portrayed. Considering Rowling’s past in adolescent fiction, this is unsurprising. Though they deal with serious issues, they focus mostly on typical teenage problems: crushes and sex, conflict with parents, and the general tendency to see things in binaries. One of the most notable teenagers is Krystal Weedon, used as an example of both the good and bad of the Fields in which she lives. Krystal is promiscuous, violent, angry, truants often, and occasionally steals. She is also the effective caretaker of her addict mother and infant brother and helped lead the local girl’s crew team to success. Krystal’s troubled history, her abject living conditions, and the stark choices she faces create sympathy for her situation, yet they do not completely erase her rough, defensive exterior.

Reality, Crude and Uncensored

The Casual Vacancy is a raw description of human character and its many immoral imperfections. In Rowling’s sometimes heavy-handed inclusion of almost any horrific experience that people can have, there is little room for redemption for any of the characters. This is a stark difference from the tale that made J.K. Rowling a household name and The Casual Vacancy. This novel is no doubt completely different in genre, perspective, and setting from Harry Potter; not even an about-face, it is on an entirely different literary plane. One of the most noticeable differences is the prevalence, often overly saturated, of sexuality and vulgarity. While Harry and his friends did not even start to like people until they were fourteen and kissing them until they were fifteen or sixteen, the teenagers in The Casual Vacancy have sex on their minds more often than not, either the real thing or the online porn they know far too well. In addition, words like “fucking,” “cunt,” “shit,” and the like are heavily used. One character notes that Krystal Weedon “used ‘fucking’ interchangeably with ‘very’, and seemed to see no difference between them.” Rowling herself is guilty of a similar authorial charge.

 “Little Vacancies” Not Totally Filled 

The Casual Vacancy has Rowling’s signature strong and engaging writing, but this does not make it easier to digest the novel’s stark subject matter. Frustration, sadness, even slight horror may come up in reading the stories of the interwoven lives of Pagford residents. Barry Fairbrother’s vacant council seat catalyzes and ultimately becomes irrelevant as the town is further embroiled in personal conflicts. Several messages from “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” left on the parish council website reveal intimate secrets of various town-members and contribute to the messy drama surrounding the election. Between an eventful council meeting and two more sudden deaths, the superficially polite and delicate seams holding together picturesque Pagford come apart. The town becomes aware of its glaring problems, but solutions are not initially obvious. The end of the novel leaves a sense of opportunity for improvement but uncertainty about Pagfordians’ ability to realize it.

Just as in her Harry Potter series, Rowling notes that her new novel deals with “mortality and morality, the two things that I obsess about,” as she told The New Yorker. The Casual Vacancy gives many glimpses into how these themes play out in real life, but does not provide much hope for their future resolution. Rowling, in the same New Yorker interview, says that she “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.” The characters of this novel and the ways in which they interact to form a community are the true focus of this story. The political jockeying that lead to these events is just a premise, becoming secondary to the crude humanity Rowling presents.

At the start of the novel, Howard and Shirley Mollison “were contemplating the casual vacancy; and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.” This novel is worth the read, but the possibilities it presents are dark and unpleasant, with no magic available to lighten the load.

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