Parish councillor Barry Fairbrother is as loved as he is loathed in the small town of Pagford. Determined to keep supporting The Fields, the area of the town that is home to the under-privileged and drug-addled, Barry finds himself a variety of strong opponents including Parish Council leader Howard Mollison. After his unexpected death, Barry’s seat on the council is open and the various members of the community plot to make it their own with the tensions in the community coming to the fore.
The Casual Vacancy is the first adult novel from J.K. Rowling and her first novel away from the Harry Potter series. First published in September 2012, the book quickly became a best-seller selling over 1 million copies in just three weeks. Now the novel has been released in paperback which will no doubt mean it will find its way into the homes of a few million more people. Something that we feel we ought to point out, and appears to have been missed by some critics, is that The Casual Vacancy is a novel for adults and not for children. There is absolutely no resemblance or relation to the world of Harry Potter. Instead Rowling offers a look at the social and economic situation of a modern-day small British town, and the politics that run it.
The first thing to get your head around with The Casual Vacancy is the sheer number of characters. There are 34 in total over the course of the book and it can be a bit confusing to begin with to understand how they all relate to one another. The narrative switches between the characters giving you an insight into their lives before revealing how they are all linked together. At the centre of the book is the Mollison family headed by the overweight leader of the Parish Council Howard and his wife Shirley. Their son Miles is a lawyer who is unaware how unhappy his wife Samantha is despite her often playing up after getting intoxicated. Seeing themselves as the finest family in the town, the Mollison’s have fractured relationships with Sikh family the Jawandas, of which the parents Vikram and Parminder are doctors, and the Prices who live in fear of their volatile and abusive father.
Elsewhere in town the Walls consisting of Deputy Headteacher Colin and his wife school guidance counsellor Tessa struggle to deal with the consistently bad behaviour of their son Stuart aka Fats who likes to misbehave in school and at home. A new addition to the town is social worker Kay Bawden and her daughter Gaia who have moved to Pagford from London. Kay is assigned to work the case of the Weedon family in The Fields and becomes intertwined with drug-addled Terri, the matriarch, and her two children Krystal and Robbie.
The Casual Vacancy is a rather hefty tome but it gives Rowling the opportunity to really explore these characters. At times the book is rather dark as it explores drug addicition, prostitution, domestic abuse and rape, but there’s plenty of humour in it too as the various families snipe and backstab each other. Her observations about the ways families work is spot on and often hilarious. Our particular favourite moments came courtesy of Samantha Mollison who begins to fantasise about a member of the boyband her daughter is a fan of to try and escape the crumbling mess that is her marriage.
The over-riding theme of the book is the difference between the rich and poor in society. The two classes have to mix whether it be at school or the doctors but it doesn’t mean any of them are happy about it. Barry fought to keep supporting The Fields with only a handful of people on his side whilst the majority of the Parish Council wanted to shut down the addiction clinic and cut The Fields off. After his death it’s a free for all and members of the council begin to land grab in order to push their own agendas. The issues that Rowling explores are easily applicable to today’s society and the battles between the class systems that still exist.
The Casual Vacancy is a triumph for Rowling. It’s a topical novel that deals with issues that our society is dealing with now, and likely will for many years to come. As a writer it’s her observations about human nature and the way families interact that make her so compelling. We all know, or have come across, characters like the ones in this book, and we’d be surprised if you didn’t recognise elements of yourself in them. Rowling’s depiction of a small-town is one where everyone knows everyone else’s business and petty jealousies escalate into something altogether more mean and spiteful. The Casual Vacancy is being turned into a BBC series to air in 2014 and we can’t wait. This is a book we recommend very highly that you read.