Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Synopsis: 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?

Number of pages: 512

Rating: 7/10

Overall Impression: This definitely ain't no kid's book. JK Rowling's recognisable style soothes against a book that holds no punches, when one is used to Harry Potter...
The Casual Vacancy

It has taken me awhile to get around to reading this. I was basically waiting til I got a Kindle for Christmas. This isn't to say I didn't want to read it though. I mean, it's JK Rowling. She wrote the books that shaped my formative years as a teenager. But The Casual Vacancy is no Harry Potter, or kid's book for that matter.

As soon as I started reading, I recognised the style and flow of JK Rowling, like a comforting blanket in the storm of the actual story. For the story is not happy-go-lucky. It is dark, mean and dirty.

This is a story told from the whole town's perspective. The point of view jumps from one character to the next, as you are introduced to the rather large cast of characters. Due to my huge fangirl-ness for Harry Potter, it took me a little bit to stop myself from comparing characters from the two completely separate stories. It also helped that, unlike Harry Potter, most of the characters are dicks.

The divide in the town on the issue of the Fields council estate, and its poor community is about as contentious for Pagford as the US Presidential election is for America. Characters have very strong views for or against keeping the Fields within Pagford's parish boundary. Rivalries and friendships are founded on one's opinions about this council estate.

It's no secret, in the UK anyway, that JK Rowling is a staunch Labour (centre-left) supporter. She has donated significant amounts of money to the Labour party, and cites Labour's benefits policies as what saved her as a single mother back before she wrote Harry Potter.

But if you didn't know she was a Labour supporter, then I'm pretty sure this book would make sure you did by the end. The 'conservative' characters are pretty much universally bigoted, misogynistic and narrow-minded. There is a rather fractious scene at a parish council meeting where Howard Mollison, chair of the council, is going on about how the local drugs clinic, Bellchapel, is a big drain on resources, especially in this time of recession. Dr Parminder, the local GP and a supporter of the Fields and the Bellchapel clinic, lays into Howard about how much he costs to society, with his obesity and recent heart bypass surgery. Howard ends up just blowing it off, most likely thinking he deserves the treatment after his years paying taxes. The lines are clearly drawn, and if you come away agreeing with the Mollisons, well... you're doing it wrong.

The characters who are on the other side of this small town war are sometimes no better. Dr Parminder treats her youngest daughter like a waste of space, not noticing the signs of depression and self harm in her own daughter. Kay, who is staunchly pro-Bellchapel, has recently moved to Pagford following a guy who blatantly did not like her that much. She clings on to this guy just to be able to justify moving to Pagford, making both of them miserable. Simon Price is an abusive shitbag to his family, causing them to live in fear of their own husband and father. Krystal is a daughter of a drug addict, who saw a brighter future after being taken under Barry Fairbrother's arm, but sees that disappear on his death.

For a lot of this book, I wasn't sure where it was going. Like, what, if any, was the climax of the book going to be. But, boy, does the shit ever hit the fan in the last fifth of the book! The ending is not particularly happy and makes you wonder if it had any lasting effect on the citizens of Pagford.
But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky; could anybody stand to know that they all were?
Pg. 504

I did enjoy it, and literally had to read right through to the end for about the last 100 pages. But it is not a book for Harry Potter fans.

If you've read The Casual Vacancy, let me know what you thought. And also, as it is being made into a BBC series, who do you think could play who? I know it would be cliché but Richard Griffiths for Howard Mollison, anyone?

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