The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Published: 2012, Little, Brown
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Personal book
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None of them was Barry. He had been a living example of what they proposed in theory: the advancement, through education, from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society. Did they not see what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died?
I can readily admit that if anyone other than J.K. Rowling had written The Casual Vacancy, this is a book I would have never crossed paths with. The Casual Vacancy is all about the mundane, everyday lives of people in an equally unremarkable English village. Usually I like my books to have a greater sense of purpose than Rowling's first piece of adult fiction has. After finishing the book, however, I found that I had greatly enjoyed the reading experience. After all, I do think that the banality of everyday life is a powerful force in uniting people.
The Casual Vacancy takes place in the small town of Pagford. Although it seems idyllic from a distance, the town is rife with strife. A large portion of the strife is brought to the surface once Barry Fairbrother, a member of Pagford's Parish Council, dies unexpectedly. For at this critical time in Pagford's existence, the citizens of Pagford are debating about whether Pagford should continue to be responsible for the Fields, a low-cost low-housing area filled with mostly undesirable residents, and whether the Bellchapel addiction clinic, whose main clientele is people from the Fields, should remain open due to Pagford's tax dollars.
Barry himself was a great story of success: he grew up in the Fields, went on to receive good schooling, and ultimately became a bank manager and well-respected leader in Pagford. Unfortunately most of the Fields' residents cannot boast the same claims to fame, and with the main proponent of the responsibility of Pagford to maintain the Fields and Bellchapel gone, there is a undisputed void. Although others try to carry on Barry's legacy, most notably the town's GP Parminder Jawanda and school principal Colin Wall, their fight is fraught with difficulties as those who wish to rid Pagford of the Fields and Bellchapel continue to gain power.
With a large cast of characters, a well-established conflict with clear issues and goals on each side, and a town steeped in history and politics, The Casual Vacancy seems like a daunting read. It did take me a while to become immersed in the characters and all of their individual and intermingled conflicts. But then I found that I did care quite a bit. Over the course of the novel I became invested in the town's fate, as well as the fate of over fifteen characters. This is why I love J.K. Rowling. Although The Casual Vacancy seems to be a story about local politics, the politics are used to instead frame a multifaceted story about the everyday lives of many different people, many whose only commonality is living in the same area.
Based on my experiences reading Harry Potter, I knew that J.K. Rowling's strength lies in characterization. Even in the magic-filled world of Harry Potter, it was J.K. Rowling's characters that captured my attention and my heart. The same holds true for The Casual Vacancy. I was actually a little surprised to find that my favorite character is Barry Fairbrother, especially since he's dead for the majority of the novel. But the way that he is able to positively influence people of so many backgrounds, to affect change in this small town, is amazing. He continues to exert a forceful presence throughout the majority of the novel. None of the other characters can ever measure up to the standards that Barry has set, and, indeed, everyone is an interesting mix in shades of grey. But it was not too difficult for me as a reader to peel back the layers surrounding the characters, to see both the bad and the good qualities of each person. Okay, maybe there were a few characters I really had a difficult time finding any redeeming qualities in, but they were definitely among the minority.
Make no mistake: The Casual Vacancy is very far-removed from the magical world of the Harry Potter series, even if both the series and this book both have phenomenal characterization. The Casual Vacancy is very much an adult book; it's full of many tough subjects and is definitely not appropriate for child readers. At first I admit that I was turned off by the (overly) mature tone of this book. This is J.K. Rowling writing this, I wondered to myself, scandalized, at many early instances in the novel. It does take some adjustment to accept how much Rowling was able to alter her tone for her new intended audience. But I did not feel that anything was gratuitous, or to simply show that Rowling could write for older audiences.
With that being said, however, I still found myself more drawn to the teens of Pagford rather than the adults. Fats' search for authenticity, Sukhvinder's struggle not to be completely subsumed by bullying and harsh parents, Gaia's frustration at being relocated to a small town, Andrew's overwhelming feelings for Gaia, Krystal's determination to make life better for her little brother: these teens were most identifiable and seemed to undergo the strongest characterization. I am much closer in age to the teens than to the adults in the story, however, so this could simply be my perception. I may have to reread the book again years down the road to see how much more relatable the adult characters become.
The tough topics that Rowling chooses to address ensure that there's no truly happy ending here; how can there be, if we as readers are exposed to characters of all different perspectives? Outwardly the beginning and ending seem to mirror each other. Internally, however, we as readers can close the book feeling satisfied that the characters really have evolved, that their lives have in fact changed over the course of the book. Not everything has an easily identifiable answer, or ends on a good note. But then, that's life.
I went into The Casual Vacancy fully expecting to be a little biased. After all, J.K. Rowling has ensured herself a permanent place among my favorite authors ever due to the Harry Potter series. I do think, however, that Rowling has proved her versatility with The Casual Vacancy. It's a slower, more adult read, but stick with it because it's well worth the effort.