Overview [from GoodReads]: When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils – Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
My Take: Being the Harry Potter fan that I am, when news first broke that J.K. Rowling was releasing another book, I went straight to Amazon and placed a pre-order. Honestly, I didn’t care what it was – I just wanted another book by her! Now, to be fair, I knew this venture was not going to be anything like Harry Potter, wasn’t fantasy, and was going to be exclusively for an adult audience. That description certainty fits The Casual Vacancy, which doesn’t entirely disappoint, but some adult Potter fans who are used to Rowling’s wit and whimsy might not be too keen on it.
This novel is set in a modern fictional British suburb called Pagford where the town is in political turmoil after a parish councilmen dies unexpectedly. I did find the depiction of small-town politics on-the-nose because, despite it being British, it possessed striking similarities as to how small-town America can be run. The novel introduces a plethora of characters, ranging from well-to-do factions of society to rebellious teens. I will give Rowling credit for tackling some ponderous social and socio-psychological issues such as addiction, child abuse, self-harm, adultery, poverty, suicide, rape, welfare, and issues related to social class (primarily who does or does not possess a “voice” or a say). Needless to say, it’s a heavy read that you won’t finish overnight.
To be honest, I struggled with this book. I wanted to at least like it, but at slightly over 500 pages (in hardcover form) the plot sagged multiple times. It feels like a long read that, page count-wise, really isn’t. But with the cast, multiple story threads, and hefty social issues, it’s rather weighty. Granted, I have to admit I really don’t like ensemble novels because there are so many characters to keep track of and I end up losing count. That happened to me quite often with The Casual Vacancy and I sometimes forgot who I was reading about and why I needed to care about them.
If one character stood out to me, it would be Krystal Weedon, the rebellious teenage daughter of a drug-abusing mother. Krystal epitomizes everything the novel seeks to depict – how dysfunctional, discouraging, and destructive modern society is. She herself abuses drugs; was raped by her mother’s drug dealer; endures living in a fractured home; engages in premarital sex; and ends up suffering greatly after losing the only person who seemed to strike a compassionate nerve in her. Be aware: Krystal is no role model and can be downright disgusting at times, much like most of the cast. But the fact she cares about at least someone close to her and tries to rise above her station in life makes her slightly likable.
Writing-wise, Rowling definitely has no issues with execution, character development, or plot. My only complaint is that there are so many plot threads that it can become tedious trying to shuffle through them. I understand why she wrote this novel in this manner, but I still struggle to connect with books featuring an ensemble of characters as opposed to one or two central figures combined with a secondary cast. But she does have a way with words in terms of dialogue and description that makes you feel transplanted into the thick of the action.
In short, no one in this book is a model citizen, either in public or in private, and I sense that was what Rowling was going for. She wanted to show contemporary society as it is minus the façade we construct to hide or pretty up serious social, psychological, and political matters. More importantly, every character here possesses an internal vacancy, whether it concerns money, social status, sexual fulfillment, or personal achievement. They try to fill this void with something material or another person (who is just as messed up as they are) but it doesn’t truly satisfy. Hence, I feel what Rowling was trying to say was that money, sex, drugs, and the like are not modes of redemption for society’s erroneous ways or personal sins. People have to look beyond the superficial and beyond themselves in order to find hope and a purpose.
Unfortunately, the book stops shy of becoming a spiritual metaphor, which I think would have enabled me to give it a full pass and would have redeemed or at least excused the existence of some of the content issues. Instead, The Casual Vacancy presents its latent messages in the form of negative positives – don’t be like these characters or you will end up just as miserable. However, reading about miserable people in a miserable world does, at times, make for a miserable story which, ultimately, is what caused me to not give it a hardy thumbs up.
Content: This novel is NOT for the young Harry Potter crowd! While not “adult” in the sense that it’s erotic, this novel deals with issues and contains content too mature for a young audience.
Language – Strong profanities are utilized by most of the characters, especially the teens who don’t blink an eye in letting F-bombs, as well as other profanities, fly.
Violence – Graphic violence is non-existent but we do see unabashed instances of physical abuse, including rape, that are depicted in a non-graphic manner. Drug use and self-harm are also shown and described though not in a way to encourage said behaviors.
Sexual Content – Sexual content ranges from sex-related dialogue to references to and descriptions of sex acts, including rape. Nothing ever becomes graphic but some instances do involve teens, so some readers may not feel comfortable perusing blunt sexual talk or reading sex scenes involving minors. Overall, The Casual Vacancy is for mature readers only. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed by some of the content, but it is not done for shock value nor does it occur on every page. But if you have concerns about certain content issues, you’ll probably find yourself skimming through or skipping more than a few pages.
Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a passable read and, for me, this isn’t a story I would revisit. It’s dark and peels back the layers of society to reveal its sinful, immoral underbelly, and I applaud Rowling for being brave enough to tackle that in a way that feels authentic. Thus, The Casual Vacancy isn’t a bad book, but I do tend to suffer some disconnect with ensemble-focused narratives. Likewise, it’s a lengthy read that tried my patience more than once as this is more of a character-driven story rather than an action-driven story. Furthermore, some of the drug abuse and sexual material might be turn-offs to readers though their usage is strictly to prove how such things never make a person feel whole. Hence, for anyone interested in reading a slice of modern British life, this novel is an okay pick; but the sundry plots, multiple main characters, and persistent focus on political schemes and scandals just never became my cup of tea.