First Published: 2012
Pages: 568 (paperback)
In the idyllic small town of Pagford, a councillor dies and leaves a ‘casual vacancy’ – an empty seat on the Parish Council.
In the election for his successor that follows, it is clear that behind the pretty surface this is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, wives at war with husbands, teachers at war with pupils . . . Pagford is not what it first seems.
From the smallest of elections in a sleepy British town, J.K. Rowling conjures an epic emotional and compulsively readable tale that has had millions of readers hooked.
I love J.K. Rowling so fucking much. Harry Potter, her ridiculously huge donations to charity, and then this. Now, I’ll admit I probably wouldn’t have looked twice at this book if it wasn’t for the name on the cover (certainly not this cover anyway, it’s fucking bland – the original illustrated red cover on the hardbacks I would totally have picked up) and I was prepared for anything from mild disappointment to vehement dislike, judging on the mixed reviews it recieved, but actually I really really liked it. It’s not going to be for every Harry Potter fan of course, and I can understand why so many of them really didn’t like it – it’s bleak, it’s depressing, it’s full of swearwords and sex, it’s very very mundane, and none of the characters are really ‘likeable’. But that’s actually what I liked about this book. It felt realistic. And doubly so because I actually live in a town very very like the fictional Pagford myself.
I’m not in the West Country, like Pagford and Yarvil, and my hometown’s probably a bit bigger, less pretty, and less self-important than Pagford, but I am in a staunchly conservative, overwhelmingly middle class, almost entirely white town in the rural South East. I even have old-schoolfriends (so guys only in their twenties) who do fucking door to door canvasing for the tories – it’s that sort of place. So yeah, lots and lots of the social issues this book examines, and lots of the characters and attitudes felt familiar to me. The classism, the disdain for people in council housing/on benefits/dealing with addiction, the ignorance surrounding other cultures, the ridiculous self-importance of local politics, and the general smug, superior attitude of some of the characters.
And those characters, though not always likeable, were brilliantly complex and realistic. The Casual Vacancy is in fact almost more about the character studies than about the story. We see events unfold through the eyes of a number of very different characters and, far from being tedious, it works. With the exception of the idolised yet very very dead Barry Fairbrother, there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Like real people, everyone has their own flaws and motivations. So Krystal, the sixteen-year-old who brings up her baby brother on a council estate, constantly encouraging her mother to quit drugs, is no self-sacrificing saint but is also a foul mouthed teen who will beat you up for being related to the wrong person. And Parminder the parish councillor and local GP who gives everything to the community is completely oblivious to her own daughters utter misery or the racist bullying she faces. While Samantha; loud, brash, snide, and obnoxiously petty, can sometimes be very sympathetic in her utter justified hatred of the place and the people she spends time with. The only character I could find absolutely nothing to like or sympathise with was ‘Fats’, the middle-class teenager determined to find himself and be ‘authentic’ by being a total shit to everybody.
The story starts with the death of popular Parish Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and follows the reactions of individuals and the community, to his death. But as well as leaving behind a grieving widow, children, and friends, he also leaves a seat on the parish council to be filled – and it isn’t long before both ends of the local political spectrum are pushing for their own candidates to give them the winning edge in the debate on whether to cut off the local council estate and close down the addiction centre. As I said, it’s a pretty mundane in terms of story and setting. But what it does do, the characters, and the way it peels off the veneer of ‘pretty little quaint english town’ to highlight very real social issues, it does very very well.
I can imagine this is quite a divisive book, but I loved it. And I’ll definitely be lending my copy to my best friend next time I visit her in London. I just know that it will remind her of home.
Of note – for those that have already read the book – the short essay Jo wrote for goodreads about crafting her characters is a really interesting read. Warning: contains massive spoilers for those who haven’t read the book yet.