Despite writing about a world far removed from that of Harry Potter, “A Casual Vacancy” is still a J.K. Rowling book. You can see it in her writing style, her knack for interesting descriptions and detailed characterization, and in her view of social classes, be it between the poor and wealthy in “Vacancy” or the muggles and wizards in “Potter.”
The book begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a kind and caring member of the town council of Pagford, a small town in England. Barry dies in the first chapter, a sad fact considering he is ultimately the most likable character in the novel. With Barry’s death, there is an opening, or a casual vacancy, on the town council. Barry’s death comes in the midst of a fight on the council over what to do with a section of Pagford called the Fields, a housing project and clinic that mars the small, idyllic town. Many members of the council want to impose redistricting of the area, which would put the Fields under the jurisdiction of a neighboring town, Yarvil. Barry was staunchly against the redistricting, and the closing of the clinic that many members of the council clamor for.
Barry’s death is the catalyst for everything that follows, the gossip surrounding his death, the political squabbles, and the tensions between those who live in Pagford and those who live in the Fields.
This is certainly no Harry Potter, and is definitely for adults. There’s rape, assault, frequent drug use, bullying and explicit sex scenes throughout the novel. It also clearly shows, and almost pushes at you, Rowling’s opinion of the poor class vs. the upper class.
The characters can be hard to stomach, petty people prone to gossip and snubbing their noses at those they feel are beneath them. There’s Howard Mollison, an obese man who is the head of the council and hungry with power, a man who cares not for the less fortunate residents of the Fields. Many of the residents of Pagford have their own dark secrets, but they hide them while reveling in the gossip of the juicy details of their neighbors’ lives. There are also the more compassionate characters, Kay Bawden, who is a social worker who works with families in the Fields. And the residents of the Fields, one family in particular consisting of Krystal Weedon, a trouble-making girl from the projects, and her drug-addicted mother, Terri, and 3-year-old brother, Robbie.
It was a hard read at first, to have an author I’ve loved so much tackle these very serious topics, a book rife with curse words, sex and drugs. Rowling also made most of the adult characters very real, but also very loathsome. There was not a character in the book I cared for, but then again maybe that’s because she just made them so human, so true to life in their faults.
The book began slow, but after the characters were introduced and plot set, I was able to get into it. Toward the middle to the end, I was definitely gripped and unable to put it down. Rowling has a way to use her characters, less so the plot, to pull you in. And she shines when she is writing about the teenage characters, Krystal who is both good and bad, a product of her environment growing up surround by drugs ans sex; Fats (who’s really not fat at all), who has sex with Krystal and tries to be as authentic as possible in all he does; and Andrew, a pimpled-face teenager in love with a fellow school mate who has an abusive father, Simon, who makes money on the side by buying and trading illegal goods.
This book is well-written and solid. It got tough for me at the end — too real and too harsh. I don’t know if I liked it, I don’t know if I hated it. But a day after putting it down, I am still thinking about it, the characters still fresh in my mind.
Pick it up and read it if you’re a Harry Potter fan and want to see what else Rowling has up her sleeve. Just know it’s not a rewarding read, not an easy read and has little of the warm, more lighthearted bits that made even the darkest parts of Harry Potter enjoyable.