The Casual Vacancy
by JK Rowling
The death of Barry Fairbrother, a leading citizen of Pagford, a small town “in the West Country”, leaves a vacancy on the parish council. Pagford residents are lined up on two sides of a dispute about the future of a crime-soaked estate known as the Fields, and the composition of the council reflects this division.
JK Rowling’s first adult novel follows the fortunes of several families. There are the Mollinsons, the Prices, the Jawandas, the Weedons and the Walls, and a few assorted singles, representing different social classes, all at each other’s throats and displaying their petty hates, jealousies and vices for all to see. Frankly, Pagford is a disaster zone and the characters of The Casual Vacancy are mostly awful people. We all know people like them, I suppose, but to find them to such a degree of awfulness in the same town stretches credibility to its limits. It is fair to say that, after a few chapters, it becomes clear that the only decent adult citizen of Pagford, and the one who most elicits our sympathy (mine anyway), is the dead Barry.
I liked the teenagers; at least, my sympathies were with them. JK Rowling really gets inside their heads, as we might expect from the author of the Harry Potter stories. However, though she may have written the novel tongue in cheek and with humorous intent, I found it on the whole most depressing. It is true there are some funny passages such as when Andrew, eldest of the two Price boys hacks the parish website to post malicious truths about his bully of a father. Or when Samantha Mollinson in a drunken stupor “snogs” Andrew. But the novel’s treatment of some very serious issues, for example, drugs, prostitution, petty theft and self-harming was, for me, too superficial and frivolous.
The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter, and isn’t my kind of novel for all its critical acclaim and success. I also wondered if it could possibly hold the record for the English novel with the greatest occurrence of a certain word beginning with F. Like most people, I enjoy a good expletive from time to time, but there comes a point in literature when street language flashes like a supernova.
Despite my indifference to this book, I’m going to give Ms Rowling another chance and read one of the detective stories she has written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.