The Casual Vacancy begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a stalwart citizen of the town of Pagford, and it tells the story of the aftermath of his death and the competition to fill the “casual vacancy” left in the form of his vacated seat on the parish council. The election, however, is an entirely mundane topic when compared with the lives of the citizens of Pagford and the wave of destruction that is making its way through the town.
This is a novel driven by hatred and sadness, encompassing almost every one of the terrible realities that life can bring but, for me, its projection of such a large host of negative traits onto such a small cast of characters was unfortunately a little unrealistic. It features abuse – violent, sexual and verbal; adultery; snobbism; homophobia; racism; paedophilia; petty crime; theft; depression; and suicide, among other horrors, and at times it did give the impression of simply attempting to make its 560+ pages as shocking as possible. Certain moments in the plot – ironically the most shocking of all – were so poignant that they briefly blotted out any other thoughts or complaints, but I largely found myself thinking that the only conceivable atrocity missing was murder, and even that was very nearly added to the long list, with a planned murder interrupted.
However, none of this is to take away from the skill of the writing and crafting of J.K. Rowling’s first novel aimed solely at adults. It was thoroughly readable and an enticing page-turner, even if the main motivation for continuing to read as quickly as possible was in hope that the chaos and hurt might come to an end.
Rowling focuses very closely on the guilty pleasures shared by the majority of the general public – particularly that of being the first to discover a piece of shocking news and having the privilege of being able to tell others the story. This is especially evident in the character of Shirley Mollison, where such guilty pleasures are augmented to such an extent that they completely dominate her personality rather than remaining in the background. Shirley and her husband, Howard, are perhaps the embodiment of the prejudices that The Casual Vacancy depicts, which could make their narrative particularly painful to follow, as the exaggerated acidity with which life is shown in this novel reached at its peak.
Almost every relationship in this melancholy tale is falling apart fast, and it is littered with characters that have a deep-set hatred for those closest to them. The failure of romantic relationships is often shocking and volatile, but it is those between parents and children that appear even more important. It is the various breakdowns of these that have the greatest effects on the plot, which comes to its explosive conclusion with a Good Samaritan-style story of neglect and self-absorption that strongly reflects the selfish actions of parents and their children throughout the novel.
I found it difficult to feel sympathy for most of the characters involved, but one of the few possible rays of hope among them was the character of Kay Bawden, a social worker who has recently moved to the area at the time of Mr Fairbrother’s death. Her key relationships – with her boyfriend, Gavin, and her daughter, Gaia – are as strained as many others in the book, so even she is riddled with the negativity that affects most of the other characters, but she seemed to me to be one of few with generally wholesome motivations for her actions and the one who seemed to have the most genuine care for other people, which was intriguing in a novel where characters with such a mindset are few and far between.
The Casual Vacancy is, then, a very well written novel that was, at times, difficult to put down. However, its main fault for me was in its often-overwhelming frequency of disaster and destruction. It treads the line between portraying a terrifyingly dark picture of modern day Britain and cataloguing a multitude of horrors that simply feels over-exaggerated, and it fell over that line too frequently for my liking. Rowling remains, nonetheless, an extremely gifted story-teller and the vivid, haunting memorability of this tale only truly hit me as I found myself halfway through reading a new book and realized that I still – however involuntarily – had my mind on Pagford.