Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 503 pages
When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early 40s, the little 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 at first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town's 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?
Blackly comic, thought-provoking, and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults.
Nine years have passed since Rowling published her first post-Potter novel. I was never very interested in The Casual Vacancy when it first came out, but I have since read her Robert Galbraith novels, which convinced me she really could write for grown-ups. So I decided to finally give this one a go, and frankly, I am glad I did because this kind of book is my jam. But it will definitely not be to everyone's tastes, and in particular, everyone who said nine years ago that if you were looking for more Harry Potter magic you'd be disappointed was not kidding.
That said, you can see the literary gestation of this ensemble cast social novel in the Potter books, which were rich in vibrant, interesting characters, definitely Rowling's strengths. In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling can give her characters adult, real-world problems and write social commentary without having to express it through wizarding world metaphors.
So I'll just say I really liked this book, despite it being about very mundane small-town English politics. It has a bit of Dickens to it, but I'm going to drag out my Anthony Powell theory again. Call it a bit of a stretch, but Barry Fairbrother, the guy who dies at the beginning and sets off all the events in the book, sounds a lot like Sunny Farebrother, a minor but recurring character in A Dance to the Music of Time, and since I am convinced Rowling borrowed other ADttMoT names for the Potter books, this seems like another sly wink to me.
Some critics claimed The Casual Vacancy doesn't really have a plot. That's not quite true, but the "metaplot" is just a driver to make situations happen, and it's secondary to the stories of individual characters. This is a character study novel. It's throwing a bunch of characters together into interlocked dysfunctional relationships and seeing what happens.
He tried to give his wife pleasure in little ways, because he had come to realize, after nearly two decades together, how often he disappointed her in the big things. It was never intentional. They simply had very different notions of what ought to take up most space in life.
Here is the plot: the pleasant, some would say idyllic, town of Pagford has a poor area known as The Fields. The Fields is a housing estate (what we'd call Section 8, or low income housing, in the U.S.), with high crime, drug addiction, single mothers on the dole, and all the usual baggage. Pagford got stuck with The Fields as a result of some complicated zoning shenanigans decades ago, and they'd very much like to dump the place onto their arch-rivals in Yarvil, the next town over. This would screw The Fields residents, since they benefit from Pagford's relatively affluent schools and social services network.
As the book opens, an esteemed member of Pagford's town council, Barry Fairbrother, a champion of the underprivileged and a defender of The Fields, has a sudden aneurism and dies. This leaves an opening in the council that must be filled through a special election. Hence the "Casual Vacancy."
"Stone dead," said Howard, as though there were degrees of deadness, and the kind that Barry Fairbrother had contracted was particularly sordid.
Class warfare-flavored chaos ensues, as pro-Fields and anti-Fields factions begin mustering.
The cast is large which makes this a book you have to sink into. Everyone is connected to everyone else in some way.
There is Mary Fairbrother, recently widowed, whose late husband's best friend has been stringing along his single mother girlfriend Kaye from London while secretly pining after Mary.
Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man, and because it was a tiny foretaste of the eternity she would have to spend without him.
Kaye's daughter, Gaia, was pretty and popular in London but hates Pagford and hates her mother for dragging her here. Gaia is lusted after by Andrew Price, whose father Simon is an abusive, violent man with a side hustle doing petty crime, and whose mother, Ruth, is a doormat who made the mistake of marrying the "bad boy" who charmed her knickers off when she was younger.
Why was she always so craven, so apologetic? He had always seen Ruth as separate, good and untainted. As a child, his parents had appeared to him as starkly black and white, the one bad and frightening, the other good and kind. Yet as he had grown older, he kept coming up hard in his mind against Ruth's willing blindness, to her constant apologia for his father, to the unshakeable allegiance to her false idol.
Andrew's best friend is Stuart "Fats" Wall who's going through an insufferable Holden Caulfield phase, seeking "authenticity" in everything he does, which mostly means doing whatever he wants and sneering at the normies.
Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth. He wanted to journey through dark labyrinths and wrestle with the strangeness that lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose hypocrisy; he wanted to break taboos and squeeze wisdom from their bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptised backwards into ignorance and simplicity.
His father, Colin, is a hapless neurotic mess of a schoolteacher with a dark secret.
Life, for Colin, was one long brace against pain and disappointment, and everybody apart from his wife was an enemy until proven otherwise.
Fats torments and cyber-harasses Sukhvinder Jawanda, the daughter of a pair of Sikh doctors. Sukhvinder's sister is prettier and smarter than her, and Sukhvinder knows it and her mother won't let her forget it, and Fats's bullying is turning her suicidal.
If she could have died...if she could have disappeared forever...but the solid surface of things refused to dissolve around her, and her body, her hateful hermaphrodite's body, continued in its stubborn, lumpen way, to live...
One of Sukhvinder's few friends is Krystal Weedon, a fellow member of their rowing team, which was sponsored by Barry Fairbrother, who was friends with Sukhvinder's mother Parminder who supported keeping open a methadone clinic that was, barely, keeping Krystal's mother Terri off of dope.
That's just a fraction of the cast. They all interlock beautifully in dark, tragicomic mini-dramas that play out as everybody begins honing their grievances.
Krystal Weedon was perhaps the best drawn character of the bunch. You can kind of tell she was probably Rowling's favorite character. We're introduced to her initially as the school slut. She's a coarse, vulgar girl from The Fields, and initially seems to be exactly the stereotypical estates girl that Pagford's residents see her as.
Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.
But as her story plays out, we see her entire life: trying to protect her little brother and keep him out of care with a druggie mother who is herself, while horrible and unsympathetic, a victim of the sort of intergenerational dysfunction and abuse that creates girls like Krystal. Krystal, despite being a rank bully with the long term planning of a grasshopper, has just enough awareness and intellectual curiosity to be aware of what she's missing, of the better life that is just beyond her grasp, and which Barry Fairbrother and his rowing team offered her a glimpse of.
Rowling still writes female characters better than male characters. It's obvious that she really feels what her female characters experience, while she's trying to empathize with the male characters and imagine what it's like to be a raging ball of testosterone, or a sad romantic loser. She doesn't quite get it, but she comes closer than she did when writing an entire series about a teenage boy.
The clunkiest plot device was where Rowling did just enough research to learn about SQL injections, and then had half of Pagford hacking the council website to air dirty laundry. Other than that, I think the stories and subplots all fit together nicely.
The Casual Vacancy is only going to appeal to a particular set of tastes, and if reading 500+ pages about the seamy underside of small-town politics and dysfunctional relationships isn't your cup of tea, skip this one. But if you like sprawling dramas with a large cast and a story that mostly just takes you back to the beginning after getting to know everyone, it is worth reading.
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