As most of you are already aware, I am not a JK Rowling fan, that’s to say, her Harry Potter series. But after being won over by the hype of The Casual Vacancy, her first adult novel, I decided to give this a go and thankfully I was proven wrong.
The Casual Vacancy is all about the lives of several families following the aftermath of Barry Fairbrother’s untimely death. Barry, universally respected by most, was a member of the Pagford council and now an empty seat has emerged, the little idyllic town throws itself into the most political of wars. You could be excused for thinking that this doesn’t sound the least bit interesting as storylines go and to be honest it isn’t, but what this book is really about is the characters and their actions.
I’ve got to say that, despite including major minority groups into the novel, Rowling actually creates a real living example of British society today. As I was reading, I saw familiar people; people I could easily recognise living in my own town. Many critics have accused Rowling of creating characters that are wooden and two dimensional, but I completely disagree. I mean, of course I’m not aware of where people live, but I think if you live in a large city, you miss out on all of the nuances of what a small community feels like and what people are willing to do, just for information or gossip.
Rowling sets a beautiful scene with Pagford and then adds a more severe backdrop with the ‘fields’; a run down area of council housing, drug addicts and prostitutes, that some residents don’t want it to be associated with their heavenly Pagford, and instead start a campaign to have it removed from their border into the neighbouring town of Yarvil. Of course, wonderful Barry Fairbrother was against this idea and so the loved ones left behind after his death, feel the need to rally and make a stand against Howard Mollison and his motley crew.
But as I’ve already said, the gem of a book here really lies within the personal lives of Pagford’s residents. It really does ring true that from an outside perspective, families seems perfect and happy, but once you delve into the small cracks left open you begin to form a picture that includes unhappiness, class, snobbery, drugs, youth, self harm and even rape. It’s interesting to see that the young people of Pagford start to formulate their own personal war over their parents and actually cause quite a stir amongst the democratic election of poor Barry Fairbrother’s vacant seat.
She’s really hit the nail on the head with the characterisation and adapted her narrative depending on whom that particular section is about. Shirley Mollison is a snob, someone who backs up her husband without question and is always on the look out for juicy gossip. Samantha Mollison is unhappy in her marriage and starts to fall for ‘Jake’, a member of her daughter’s favourite boyband – he is sixteen. Krystal Weedon is a resident of the Fields and daughter to drug addict Terri. Kyrstal actually forms quite a big chunk of the story with her brash, aggressive attitude and loose morals.
Another area the critics didn’t seem to like was the ending; I actually thought the finale was just right. It left it where it needed to be left. It could so have easily run on, but like a true writer, Rowling knew where to end it. I can’t give anything away as that would be unfair, but I didn’t see it coming. I should have done; I’ve guessed endings much more clichéd than this, but I think the result of this is that I was so engrossed in the book that I wasn’t actually trying to guess anything. It came naturally to me and I enjoyed it more because of it.
The book isn’t perfect however. I thought the layout mostly needed reinventing. It is split into seven parts, which is fine, but at the beginning it formulated a concept of a different day of the week as the heading and then what happened on that day. I felt this could have worked wonderfully throughout rather than scrapping it after the first part and ultimately it sometimes became hard to realise how much time had passed since reading different parts, or even chapters for that matter.
You don’t have to like a character for you to understand why the author decided to take their journey down a certain path. If you understand it then that’s just part of the journey of reading itself. However, I have to say that one particular ‘path’ regarding Gavin Hughes, a lawyer in Pagford, was pathetic! I was totally smacked in the face when I discovered, towards the end, what was going on with him. And not in a good way too. The storyline here for him was ridiculous, completely unnecessary and actually a little annoying. It was as if Rowling couldn’t find a way to end things for him in the book so she took a wild grab in the air and pulled this idea straight from an episode of a soap.
I do have to say however, that actually JK Rowling has won me over; for her adult novels that is. It is full of character, exceptional use of authentic voice and completely engrossing. I had my particular favourite characters and a few who got on my nerves; but that’s real life, isn’t it? This is adult fiction that is unlike anything other I have read before and I’m happy I gave it a go. It is so realistic how she managed to divide people here not only in class, but also political views, location, age and religion. I happily take my hat off to Rowling and admit, I was wrong.
The Casual Vacancy on Goodreads: