The Casual Vacancy is a book about the idyllic town of Pagford and the people who live there. Councillor Barry Fairbrother drops dead suddenly and elections are on for the next Councillor to sit in the Pagford Town Council.
The elections are complicated by an ongoing issue that is causing a lot of conflict. A decision needs to be taken about the problems of the folks living in a slum-like area nearby – these people and their houses are a major drain on public expenditure. Lots of public money is poured into resources for them and there is very little to show for it.
The good people of Pagford would like to wash their hands off this area and re-draw their boundaries so that Pagford remains as idyllic as it used to be.
But all this comes at a cost and is the town willing to pay the terrible price?
Damn, but this is a grim and sad book. I realized I was subconsciously expecting the good guys to come up on top (just like Harry Potter where sad things happen but ultimately it’s a happy ending). But in this book, Rowling dispenses with the happiness and light ending and really ratchets up the tragedy quotient.
Was this a spoiler? I hope not. I just want readers to know beforehand that this book is not at all like Potter, not in the least bit, and to be prepared with the handkerchiefs ready, and not read the book in public, and not to get caught off-guard at the end.
So, apart from being sad, what else can I say about the book? I have to admit the first 150 pages or so were quite slow, with a number of characters introduced into the story. It was bloody hard for me to keep track of who is who, and who is important and who is not.
But once all that confusion got sorted out in my mind, and I was able to differentiate a Samantha from a Shirley, the book started to get interesting. Rowling has an awesome way of developing people’s back stories and making us relate to even the most unsympathetic people.
I also love how she describes the children (teenagers actually) in the book. Her character sketches are spot-on.
What I didn’t quite love is the way she moved the plot forward. Maybe it’s me, but I hate a plot point repeating itself in several places with the exact same result.
I know this above sentence sounds vague to people who haven’t read the book, but trust me, if/when you read this book you will be struck by this aspect too. It’s so sharp that when I returned to this book after a brief gap I felt I had already read the new sections.
So, that was a huge flaw in the book and stopped me from appreciating it fully.
Another (not a flaw, really), but something I dislike is bad language. I hate cursing and bad language and even though it’s not gratuitous (this is how these characters would probably speak and it seems pretty true to life), I can’t not mention it here. If you are offended by cursing, swear words, drug use, and casual sex, then this book is not for you.
That said, the unevenness of the book is fully remedied by the passion Rowling has put into it. Knowing a bit about her history as a single welfare mom and her current philanthropic efforts, while reading this book I could see that this is a book that she really, really needed to write, and not a calculated decision to veer off the YA circuit (something I thought when this book was first published).
The book ending is also good, heart-rending but good. Personally, I would have preferred something a little more upbeat, but I have to say this ending works well too at resolving all the plot points.
I now look forward to reading her crime thriller novels now. She really has shown that she is more than a one-trick pony.
You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon