I was never really sure I wanted to read this book when it came out because the description sounded dry and boring and decidedly not Harry Potter, but after absolutely devouring The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, I thought I’d give it a try. And if you assess J.K. Rowling’s talent solely by reading the Harry Potter series, you are seriously missing out. Every book I’ve read by her has blown me away, this included.
The Casual Vacancy starts with the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother, the beloved Pagford parish member and an upstanding member of his community. His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the parish council that various factions hope to fill. You see, Pagford’s council is deeply divided on the issue of The Fields, a government housing project that sits on the border of Pagford and the neighboring large town, Yarvil. There is an acrimonious history between Yarvil and Pagford, particularly surrounding The Fields. Barry Fairbrother grew up in The Fields, which allowed him to attend the well-regarded primary school in Pagford, which he believed gave him a leg up and helped him escape the poverty he was born into. He has fiercely championed for The Fields to remain part of Pagford, while he himself serves as the embodiment of what a social safety net can help produce. However, not all the council members agree with Barry. Howard Mollison, parish council member and local deli owner, firmly believes that The Fields taint Pagford and bring nothing but trouble to the idyllic small town. For him, The Fields are embodied by Krystal Weedon, a teenager whose mother is a heroin addict and who has caused nothing but disruption in her time at Pagford schools. Howard hopes to push his son, Miles, into the vacant council seat, while Collin “Cubby” Walls takes it upon himself to run on the ideals that Barry campaigned for. The election and the loss of one of their most beloved town leaders resonates through the town, shaking up not only politics, but also the private lives of many of the citizens.
It it tough to explain the plot of The Casual Vacancy because this is more the story of a town told through the lens of multiple residents, rather than the story of any one particular person or event. While the election to replace Barry Fairbrother is central to the construction of this story, the central debate that lay at the heart of this novel is how to address the inequality inherent in capitalism. Because capitalism is competition-based, then there will be winners and losers and inequality. It is how to think about the “losers” that fuels Pagford’s debate about The Fields. Howard Mollison and his followers believe that those that are on the bottom are there due to their own flaws (laziness, drug addiction, criminality, etc.) and that their way out of poverty should involve pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. After all, Howard claims he is a successful business owner without having the benefit of a government hand-out (neglecting entirely the fact that he started his deli with substantial help from his mother’s personal savings). On the other hand, Barry Fairbrother and his followers cling to the notion that government plays a role in addressing inequality through providing housing, schools, drug treatment, and other community services. After all, Barry is a successful councilor, banker, husband, father, rowing coach, and upstanding community member and he credits this all to the benefits he received by being allowed to attend Pagford’s premier schools.
And while political ideals are all well and good, it is clear in examining the community members that no one’s motives are pure. Barry’s faction is mostly made up of adults who were more struck by his charisma than they were by the causes he was working for. Howard seems to be more enamored with creating a flawless image of Pagford, sucking up to the old money of Pagford, and beating Barry than he is about actually saving the parish money. Which just brings me around to the point– most of the adult characters in this book are petty and trifling and deeply flawed, in a rather unhopeful sort of way. The adolescent characters, while not perfect angels by any means, were much more sympathetic. I was particularly affected by the parts about Krystal Weedon and the desperation and hopelessness of her situation. The scenes in the Weedons’ house were difficult, but important, vivid, and moving. And while Krystal has been given the worst start of anyone, no one’s life in this story is easy. Everyone has their own problems, from bullying to OCD to an abusive father to fear of commitment to unrequited love to type 2 diabetes and hypertension. To me, this is what makes The Casual Vacancy so successful; it is a character study of various townspeople with varying socioeconomic, ethnic, and family backgrounds and yet these are all real people dealing with their own struggles, some self-imposed, some external. It is a fascinating portrait of the whole community.
My only complaint with this book was that it got off to a slow and confusing start. The point of view changes often, sometimes after only a few paragraphs and without warning. There are no gaps, headers, or other formatting to denote you’re now following someone else, just a change in the character’s name and before you get a feel for who is who (lots of people share last names because they are related, not to mention there are nicknames galore) it gets confusing. The point of view changes and the large cast of characters made this a difficult novel to approach. It is something you have to really allow yourself some time with, to get to know the cast of characters and how they relate to one another. It does all come together in the end, however, and the more I read the easier it was to keep characters distinct in my mind.
I am absolutely blown away by J.K. Rowling’s talent. I loved Harry Potter, am newly obsessed with Cormoran Strike, and was wowed by the beauty and complexity of The Casual Vacancy. It is safe to say that if I see her name on a book, I will read it. I’d also highly recommend this book, especially to those who love character studies. It was absolutely not what I expected, but I think this book turned out to be something quite special. It was quite refreshing to see an analysis of social welfare in fiction that addressed both its successes, failures, and the dangers of dismantling it. I will be thinking about the characters for a long time to come (and every time I hear Rihanna’s “Umbrella”).