Sun shining? Birds singing? Feeling just too darn cheerful? The Casual Vacancy will fix that right up.
This behemoth of a novel begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, arguably the nicest and most-well-intentioned character of the book, and goes downhill from there in a swirling maelstrom of small town politics, old school British snobbery, drug addiction, self-harm, domestic violence and poverty. In a poorly disguised class war, the residents of small British town Pagford do battle with one another in an attempt to cut ties with a nearby council estate and drug rehabilitation centre. The resulting fallout affects the personal lives of all of Pagford’s main inhabitants, with Rowling’s behind-closed-doors writing style giving the reader plenty of – sometimes too much – information about the mental processes of some of its less than savoury characters.
Bleak, introspective and piercingly clever, JK Rowling’s first foray in the world of adult literature seems to be assuring us with every page turn that she has definitely left the world of children’s books behind. Of course the later Harry Potter novels had some pretty dark content, but whereas in that series there was a definite line between good and evil, in The Casual Vacancy it seems that most of the eight trillion characters house their own internal and constantly warring legions of light and dark. Some are definitely worse than others. The vile antagonist Howard Mollison, whose prodigious bulk and booming voice dominate each scene in which he appears, continues to haunt my nightmares in lurid detail, along with depictions of the rigid and controlling Simon Price and school bully Fats Waller. The depth with which JK Rowling exposes her characters’ grim and self-serving internal justifications makes for uncomfortable reading.
Overly long, insufficiently edited and essentially lacking in plot until the middle of the book, The Casual Vacancy manages to simultaneously feel compelling and also like hard work. Once you have sorted out in your mind which character is who, and what storyline they belong to (something that took a few seconds for me to figure out, the entire way through), the characters’ own personal arcs drive the story more than the rather feeble council election process which arguably forms the plot of the novel. With a devastating and unexpected climax, the feelings stirred up by The Casual Vacancy will take a while to shake off. Although an effective piece of art with a satisfying emotional pay-off, I couldn’t sit through it a second time.