November 5, 2012 by Jason Seligson
Since its release in late September, The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, has received mixed reviews—even among the most devout Harry Potter fans.
It was inevitable that The Casual Vacancy was going to be compared to Harry Potter; and as the first book Rowling’s published since the series concluded in 2007, it would be difficult not to open her next work without high expectations. Hearing the woman who single-handedly changed the face of children’s literature curse and talk about sex, drugs, and myriad of other adult subjects certainly takes some getting used to; as does her use of modern social media like Facebook; but after a while, those worries should disappear. The Casual Vacancy is a compelling read—and while it may not be for every Harry Potter fan, it is certainly for fans of good storytelling.
Here’s the basic premise: The Casual Vacancy takes place in a small English town called Pagford. Like most small towns—real or fictional—everyone knows each other, and the local government may as well be the United Nations. The opening pages introduce us to Barry Fairbrother, our would-be hero; but in these same few pages, the protagonist-that-might-have-been meets an untimely end, dying of a brain aneurism. And so, Barry’s death creates an open seat on the Parish Council (local British government). Known as a “casual vacancy,” Barry’s sudden passing creates the impetus for an election.
The most polarizing issue plaguing Pagford is the decision of a council estate known as “The Fields” (basically the British equivalent of American housing projects for people of lesser means). Barry was determined to fight for The Fields, but there were many who opposed him; and now those same dissenters are coming out of the woodwork in the coming election—one that will determine the fate of The Fields and all the people living there.
You don’t have to live in Britain to know the town (or the people) Rowling’s writing about; Pagford is a pseudo-suburban dream—meaning that realistically it’s a nightmare. The shiny exterior is nothing but a facade, a distraction from what these people’s lives actually are. Much like the Dursleys—Rowling’s original mundane family—the people of Pagford live in a fantasy world, most of who care only about their own egotistical lives and maintaining the idyllic image of their beloved town.
The large cast of characters includes: The Mollisons, an old-fashioned couple that has lived in Pagford for several generations, who vehemently oppose helping the poor people of The Fields; The Prices, a passive wife and a volatile husband who hates his son, and decides to run in the election; The Walls, both tied to the high school and get thrown into the election, while trying to manage their rebellious son; Kay, a social worker determined to aid the underprivileged families, all while managing her failing romantic life and an unstable relationship with her own daughter; and finally, Mary, Barry’s widow, who tries to mourn her husband in spite of the political circus surrounding her.
One can’t understate the tremendous influence the teenage characters have in this book. Rowling has always had a fondness for the adolescent experience, and with The Casual Vacancy, she continues to speak to those universal questions with the five central young adult characters. According to her, the two most heroic characters in the book are in fact both teenagers.
Clearly, The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter have little in common other than their author. Still, for many, the book is divisive. One of the criticisms I’ve seen is that the book juggles too many characters; understandably, with so many character arcs, the story is a little slow-moving at first, but rest assured, it really picks up near the halfway point.
Readers have also expressed a general distaste for most of the characters—that they’re too real, too difficult to fully invest in—but this, I believe, is intentional. The novel’s title doesn’t simply refer to the vacant seat left by Barry’s death, but also to the vacancy in each of the character’s lives. Everyone in this book is desperately trying to fill that emptiness, with sometimes destructive results. Nobody here is quite whole, and yes, several of them are hateful, but part of the wonderful experience of reading the book is that you can’t help but feel something toward them by the end. Ultimately, The Casual Vacancy is a book full of heart—even if it’s initially buried beneath the surface. And for the writer who has done so much for literature already, I’d count her first post-Potter book as a success.