OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way right up front. In case you haven’t heard yet, this book is NOTHING like Harry Potter. Not at all. Not even a little bit. If, in reading J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter book, you were hoping for an adult novel with hints of magic, or a sort of “Hogwarts for Grownups,” I suggest you read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Do not — I repeat, do NOT read The Casual Vacancy. I mean this.
On the other hand, if you like contemporary, character-driven novels full of social issues and flawed, complex human beings, and you don’t care whose name is on the cover — you should definitely read The Casual Vacancy.
If you perhaps have a tendency to get a little too wrapped up in books and you empathize with characters and feel devastated when something bad happens to a character you’ve grown to love — you should read The Casual Vacancy, but only if you’re feeling particularly mentally well and strong, and have a box of Kleenex handy just in case.
The novel explores the interconnected lives of a group of people (the point of view is omniscient and we see through the viewpoints of at least a dozen different characters throughout the course of the story) living in a small English village. The catalyst for the events of the story is the sudden death of a town councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and fallout, both personal and political, from his death and the scramble to replace him. Small-town political maneuvering taps into bigger issues as mayor (actually he’s a step down from being called mayor because the town isn’t big enough to qualify for a mayor, but that’s basically his role) Howard Mollison is pushing to transfer responsibility for the local public housing estate away from the village of Pagford and onto a nearby town, which will prevent children from public housing from attending Pagford schools and also provide a convenient excuse to close the addictions clinic which serves many of the estate’s residents.
The plot here is really not the driving force: what matters is the characters and how their secrets and motivations are peeled away and revealed. Every character is complex, multifaceted and flawed: all do some unlikeable things, but once Rowling had skilfully revealed their perspectives I was able to empathize with almost all of them. A couple of characters were simply unlikeable and seemed to me to be pure evil, but for the most part, everyone came off like a genuine, fallible human being.
There’s a huge cast. The characters whose points of view we get to see include the mayor, his longsuffering wife; an abusive husband and father and HIS longsuffering wife; the mayor’s self-important son and his wife who is not at all interested in suffering long; a doctor and councilwoman who is accused of malpractice; a social worker who has recently moved to town and the skeevy lawyer boyfriend who’s sorry she made the move but can’t quite get up the energy to dump her; an ineffectual school principal tortured by his own mental illness and his briskly efficient guidance-counsellor wife. There are also teenagers, like a Greek chorus observing and commenting on the foibles of their elders while dealing with their own problems: the bully; his victim; the insecure boy in love with an unattainable girl; and the spunky, feisty girl from the public housing project who schemes about how to attain a better life for herself and her little brother.
You don’t have to be an extraordinarily perceptive reader (and thus this is not a spoiler) to guess early on that just as the book begins with one sudden tragedy, it will end with another, and at various times in the novel it seems almost anyone could be the victim of the next tragedy. When it finally happens, the really shattering thing is not just what happens, but the fact that it was so completely preventable. Barry Fairbrother’s death was due to an aneurysm — the ultimate “impossible to predict; impossible to prevent” death. The tragedy that closes the book is its exact opposite: one that could have been averted numerous times, a fact Rowling underlines by showing the minutes leading up to that tragedy from the points of view of several different people who might all have intervened, had they not been too wrapped up in their own problems to see what was happening to someone else.
That’s this novel in a nutshell: people going about their lives, often wilfully oblivious to tragedies happening right under their noses. There are characters who try to do a little better. There are glimmers of hope and possible change for a few characters by the end. But don’t kid yourself: this is a novel about difficult situations and you will not get out of it unscathed. I may have gotten a little too wrapped up in some characters and I may have felt a bit emotionally devastated when the book was over. I will definitely be putting this on my favourites list for the year, and I’m really glad that J.K. Rowling didn’t allow the astonishing success of the Harry Potter novels to trap her into feeling “I have to do this one thing for the rest of my life” but was able to try something completely different and, in my view, do it with complete success.