Set in the fictional West Country village of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy is a darkly comic drama which explores the repercussions of the death of a divisive Parish Councillor. The plot centers on the resulting re-election and on the machinations of the council’s two principal factions: the so-called ‘Fielders’ who want Pagford’s neighbouring council estate, called The Fields, to remain a part of Pagford and to keep its drug rehabilitation clinic open, and the anti-Fielders, who wish to jettison The Fields and close the clinic.
As this précis suggests, The Casual Vacancy is a fairly political novel and, not surprisingly given Rowling’s own well-publicized political views, it wears its social conscience on its sleeve. This has drawn some criticism from certain circles and it may be problematic for you but, though its delivery can be heavy-handed at times,The Casual Vacancy is by no means a naive or simplistic book. It calls attention to the roots of certain types of anti-social behaviour and humanizes rather than demonizes the people responsible for that behaviour. This all sounds very right-on, I realise, and it is true that the villains of the piece are essentially prototypical Daily Mail readers but, though Rowling’s agenda is clear, she paints largely in shades of grey and, with the possible exception of the man who dies on the third page, the characters on both sides of the political spectrum are portrayed as shallow and self-serving. Furthermore, whilst certain impoverished characters like the monstrous Simon Price and the disgusting Obbo are unequivocally awful, with literally no redeeming features, other wealthier characters, like the louche, perma-tanned Samantha, are portrayed somewhat sympathetically. In fact, it is probably the novel’s greatest strength that all of its characters are at least slightly unpleasant. If you are a reader who likes a clear demarcation between good and evil, you will struggle here because, despite what some critics have said, The Casual Vacancy is more than just a fluffy socialist fairytale.
But is it any good, you ask. Well, yes, I rather think it is. Rowling’s novel is very much an ensemble piece and its narrative shifts perspective between around twelve central characters every few pages. This device keeps things rattling along at a fair pace, despite the sedate setting, and the characters themselves are nicely fleshed out, especially the teenagers, whose actions precipitate many of the novel’s major plot developments, and whose alternative perspectives offer often powerful insight into the lives of the adult characters. The writing is decent too. It’s not high art and the peculiar use of parentheses to enclose often lengthy expositional passages feels inelegant, but Rowling’s first novel for adults is lightyears ahead of that other novel for “adults” and, in particular, its rendering of the experience of grief is deeply moving. Its conclusion, too, though a little unlikely, is extremely powerful and will stay with you long after you finish the final page.
The Casual Vacancy is not without its problems, however. As mentioned above, some of its politics are heavy-handed, not least an unexpected appearance by the estranged lesbian daughter of two of the more odious characters, as well as the near-constant equating of middle-class obesity with council-estate drug addiction, both of which feel like cheap shots. There are problems with the plot too. Midway through there is a Parish Council scene in which one faction are shown to already hold the overwhelming majority of seats, thus rendering the central question of who will fill the casual vacancy moot. Some of the characterisation is also a hard to believe in places. The idea that a domestic abuser like Simon Price might run for a seat on a Parish Council is patently absurd, even with the justification provided, and quite how the saintly Barry Fairbrother could possibly have been close friends with someone as cowardly and irksome as Gavin is beyond me. But I am nitpicking. These are all fairly minor issues and none of them detract all that much from what is an otherwise accomplished and affecting novel.
Sadly, of course, none of this actually matters because of that elephant in the room around which I can skirt no longer: Harry Potter. Rowling’s first novel not centered on a school for witchcraft and wizardry was tragically doomed from the start. And this was always terribly unfair. No, The Casual Vacancy will not change your life, nor will it leave a lasting mark on the literary landscape. But JK Rowling is the author of a staggeringly successful series of children’s books; she is not – nor was she ever – the 21st Century’s answer to Virginia Woolf. And it is to her credit, I think, that she seems not to have made any effort here to pander – or even appeal – to fans of Harry Potter (not fans of her) and has chosen instead to court a new fan-base with her adult fiction. And I say good luck to her! It is out there now and if there is any justice The Casual Vacancy will stand as the benchmark against which Rowling’s future work is judged, without any need for comparison with those wizard books. As to whether or not you should read it, that all depends. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter and the concept of The Casual Vacancy doesn’t appeal to you then you should probably give it a miss. But if you like grimly poignant, socially conscious, character-driven drama then you could do a lot worse than this perfectly decent book.