Friday, October 12, 2012
Pages: 503 (hardcover)
Published: September 2012 by Little, Brown & Co.
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the 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 first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish 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?
Remember the very first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, when JK Rowling so wittily describes Uncle Vernon's day-- the day that he kept hearing whispers about the Potters and seeing people in funny cloaks in town? And she writes about the family and his mundane doings for just a few pages, as a kind of introduction to the chillingly brilliant scene where Dumbledore and McGonagall leave the infant Harry on the Dursleys' doorstep with a letter? Yeah, well, The Casual Vacancy is kind of like a great big literary novel about the family Dursley and their interactions with their Privet Drive neighbors.
If JK Rowling had not written this book, I know for a fact that I would probably never have picked it up or gotten past the first twenty pages, because this is not my type of book. But, I ploughed on and eventually discovered that Ms. Rowling's latest is actually a pretty good read. Not a great read, and DEFINITELY not Harry Potter... like maybe if Harry Potter was a jaded teenage Muggle boy overly concerned with being "authentic" and doing whatever the heck he wanted no matter what anybody else thought. (One of the characters, Fats Wall, struck me as kind of a Muggle Draco Malfoy-- he's a big bully and really horrible.) There are no Harrys in The Casual Vacancy, and by that, I mean there are no heroes. I guess this is intentional, as the book is supposed to be "grim" and realistic, but the deceased-after-the-first-five-pages Barry Fairbrother is the closest thing to a hero the novel has. 90% of the people in the town of Pagford seem to be lying, cheating, spiteful, petty individuals. And while this may make for an interesting book, it did not make for one that I truly enjoyed, personally. There was nobody to root for! The most likeable character in the book is Krystal Weedon, an infamous local teenage girl whose mother is an addict and who is known for being an incredibly efficient troublemaker.
The writing of The Casual Vacancy is Rowling-esque, for sure: it's witty and observant and just generally smart. The plot is verryy slow at first, but things do pick in the last fifty pages or so... though I have to say I didn't like the way the ending turned out, not at all. But this was definitely one of those books I couldn't put down, because I just had to know how it ended and if the story got better, if the characters learned their darn lessons. But in the end, it's certain that The Casual Vacancy will not become a annual or even bi-annual re-read for me. I really hope that JK Rowling, literary heroine of so many people around the world and an author very near to my heart, will turn to writing fantasy or something more speculative in the future. She has a brilliant, amazing imagination, but I think she does better writing about sympathetic characters and stories with elements of the magical and the mundane, rather than just the mundane.