J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is the negative film of her previous work: the Harry Potter series. It is set firmly in Muggle land. It is as disenchanted and grim and dark as it goes. And worst of all? It is gut-wrenchingly real.
Set in a small English town called Pagford, The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a fair-tempered man on the town’s Parish council and a role model for many, especially Krystal Weedon, a deeply troubled teenager living in the poorest part of Pagford: the Fields.
For many, Barry’s death due to an aneurysm is a sad event that wouldn’t cause a ripple. But for some citizens of Pagford, Barry’s death represents the opportunity to change: to get the Fields off of Pagford’s back and onto that of the bigger town nearby and to shut down the rehabilitation clinic that has become an economic burden on them.
The deeply divided Parish council members represent their deeply divided families. Parminder Jawanda, a general practitioner coping with the death of closest ally, requires much more from her youngest daughter than she’s willing to give. The pressure from her parents, coupled with ridicule from her peers, lead Sukhinder to cut herself to seek relief, in the corner of her bedroom where no eyes can see her self-mutilation.
Collin Walls, a deputy headmaster with a serious case of paranoia and Barry’s best friend, is horrified at everything that goes on and immediately comes up with the most cataclysmic scenarios of which he is front and center. He wants to fill Barry’s shoes and continue his work but he knows deep down that he’s beyond unfit for the job. His son, Fats, doesn’t help in easing things for his dad. On the contrary, his eerie approach to life makes things harder for everyone around him. Honesty was his currency – he believed it frightened people when you were honest because most of them are filled with embarrassment and pretense.
Andrew Pierce can respond to his father’s blows very aptly – but only mentally. He has to endure mental and physical abuse from his father, a corrupt man, day in day out against his young brother, Paul, his mother, Ruth, and himself. His bloody cheeks and swollen eyes are always caused by his clumsiness as he falls off his bike. Always.
Howard Mollison, a beyond overweight snobby man, wants to get his son Miles to replace Barry on the council and finally secure the majority vote he needs to go through with his plans. He sees in Pagford as the elite place in the entire country. And he considers himself to be the first citizen of Pagford, a belief that is shared by his wife Shirley. Samantha, Miles’ wife, is unhappy with the slum that her life has become. She seeks relief in fantasies about her daughter’s favorite boy band and finds refuge in the idea of her beyond the confines of the small town she has become to hate as her husband pursues goals that would further cement him on the cobbled streets she despises walking on.
And Krystal Weedon, living in a toxic environment of drug use and prostitution and child abuse, has to cope the best she can to give her three year old brother, Robbie, the life that he deserves and which her mother, Terri, cannot begin to provide with her relapsing to shooting up needles into her arm whenever she faces the simplest difficulties and bringing men to have sex with right in front of her son as a form of payment for the crack her veins crave.
The Casual Vacancy is black comedy. It is a book that will feel humorous – a sort of satire of all our communities – until it really sinks in when you delve into the misery of it all and once it goes deeper into breaking the facade that people give to others in order to keep their image poised. Even the villains of the book, the Mollisons, have people with whom you can sympathize and who, after a gin or two, will get you to laugh even in the book’s bleakest moments. The Casual Vacancy turns into a comic tragedy – one that feels so real that the reading becomes riveting and you unable to put the book down. The pages keep on turning and your mind keeps on consuming this suburban life, this lack of magic, this reality of it all.
The Casual Vacancy is the story of small community, one that most of us hail from. A community where you know who the “town whore” is and you still see people smile out of courtesy, as if they are clueless, when she passes by. A community where you know who the poor people are and you feel disgusted when they pass by, despite you preaching about moral responsibilities for ears that would listen. A community where drug addicts are ostracized and where those who are the worst possible candidates for a certain position end up winning and where mothers and fathers treat their children badly without them even knowing.
It is the injustice of it all – one that even culminates in the not happy ending – that makes The Casual Vacancy so believable. There isn’t a moment on those pages that feels odd. If anything, some of what happens there may be too morbid. But it still beats against you like the pulse of blood behind a wound. The Casual Vacancy is a brave book by an author who was brave enough to leave her home turf into uncharted territory. And she excels at it. It is a joy to read how many parallel plots can be unleashed simultaneously without them even getting remotely tangled – except when J.K. Rowling wants them to.
The Casual Vacancy is a deeply moving novel and morality, mortality and the importance of responsibility by an author that understands these elements very well. But where Harry can apparate to wherever he wants (except Hogwarts of course because you should have read Hogwarts, A History by now) and flick his wand to solve some impeding problem, the well-developped characters of The Casual Vacancy have to settle for the mundane to get by in their densely-imagined, well-crafted and exquisitely written world, not very unlike ours. It is the story of all the casual vacancies in the hearts and souls of these people as they strive for normality and for acceptance.