I’m not sure I would have ever read J.K. Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy if it hadn’t been chosen by a member of my book club. For starters, the book didn’t sound all that appealing to me – Barry Fairbrother dies and leaves a vacant seat on the parish council. Small town politics? Ugh. I wouldn’t have been motivated to read it because I’m a fan of her other books either. You know, the ones about the wizard and his friends and he who shall not be named. Yeah. I’ve only read the first one. Loved the movies, though.
So, I started this novel not really expecting very much of anything. I mean, c’mon, it’s 503 pages long. It’s about a small British town. There are a zillion characters. And I loved it. Okay, maybe love is too strong a word. (My kids say I never love any book, but that’s not true.) I really liked The Casual Vacancy. A lot.
First of all, I lived in England for a couple years and so Pagford, the fictional setting of this novel, seemed familiar to me. I knew the shops and the narrow streets, the school and the council flats. I could hear the characters (I kept imagining Coronation Street although I know that’s probably the wrong accent.) Once I got settled, the characters and their stories (all of which intersect due to their relationship with Mr. Fairbrother) felt very much like I was watching a British soap opera marathon. Every character was brought brilliantly to life. Fathers and mothers, teenage children, doctors, addicts, rich and poor – no one is left out. I really think that writing character is Ms. Rowling’s true gift as a writer. Characters drive story and that is certainly the case in this book. Nothing much happens. And everything happens and all of it because Barry Fairbrother dies.
Some of The Casual Vacancy is laugh-out-loud funny. For example, middle-aged Samantha’s growing preoccupation with the hunky lead singer of a British boy band. (I may know a thing or two about this, as I find myself staring at pictures of Zayn Malik from One Direction just a teensy bit longer than is necessary.) Some of the characters are so heart-breaking you just want to hug them: Krystal and her little brother, Robbie. Some characters are reprehensible, yes, Simon, I’m looking at you! All of them are so…human…though. Flawed and brave and cowardly and pretentious and blind and you’ll see yourself or someone you know in every single one of them. This isn’t a book where something happens. The plot is pretty much incidental to the novel. Spending time with these people is time well spent, though.
I do have one niggle with the book. Rowling took such care building up these people in this place and time, I did find the ending a little rushed. I would have been happier, perhaps, with a little less in the middle in exchange for a little more at the end. I didn’t feel cheated, exactly, I guess I just wanted more. I don’t need to know the fate of everyone, but some pretty dramatic things happen near the end and I just felt pushed along.
I’d recommend this book, though. If you weren’t a fan before, The Casual Vacancy could very well win you over. I am definitely going to read those Harry Potter books.