Barry Fairbrother dies creating a vacancy in the Parish Council. It is not a harmonious time in local matters, with issues between the idyllic village of Pagford and its District Council Town of Yarvill over the area known as The Fields (a council estate). As Barry Fairbrother lies in his grave, the candidates emerge. Rowling’s character call is extensive, involving six families. Each is given time and space to reveal themselves as a complex web of relationships emerges.
This is a quietly written novel that needs its length in order to allow for these characters to develop, and for me, it took a while to grapple with some of them. That’s not to say it felt slow, or cumbersome; on the contrary. There are parallels in life, and the ordinariness of events, lives and people is one of its strength – at the risk of comparing to her infamous HP series – a stark contrast to the magical worlds she created there. The Casual Vacancy is beautifully observed, with characters that seem so real. There are two generations within most families (three in the case of the Weedons and the Mollisons), with more sympathy elicited towards the younger generations. The adults are unlikeable characters on the whole, as Rowling reveals some of the worst of human behaviours, at the same time, revealing somethings in all of us. Within the murky stories are some huge issues – addiction, rape, mental health issues (OCD and depression), domestic abuse, self-harming, adultery, and a great deal of loss.
There are many levels of conflict in The Casual Vacancy, beyond the issue of who will fill the shoes of Barry Fairbrother (the only likeable adult, but as he’s dead, that’s probably a rose-tinted view, as his widow points out.). There are tensions between friends, and the awful behaviour of self-centred Fats, tensions between parents and their children – in all families – and between the residents of Pagford without the issue of the vacancy.
Ultimately the filling of the casual vacancy doesn’t become the centre of the book, and when this comes, it’s like an after thought, and as a reader, I’d gone beyond that, because I’d become caught up in what mattered in the book, for me. This was Krystal Weedon, and the fate of her half-brother, Robbie.
At the beginning, I hadn’t really expected for The Casual Vacancy to grip me, but it was a ‘just one more chapter’ book. It quietly grew on me, not for any affinity for the people in it (except Krystal Weedon who I did want to rescue), but because I was caring what happened to them – and what the comeuppance might be! It is the young people in the book that ‘steal’ it, as they are far more likeable, with far more hope, than their rather shallow, unlikeable parents.
There is a dark, tragic end to the book, and at the risk of giving too much away, where the self-centred behaviours of the self-obsessed adults contributes to its denouement. This left me reeling, and ultimately reflecting why my reaction was so intense. Few books bring me to tears, but this one did.
An immensely enjoyable read, and if you like character driven novels, this one is for you.