Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Released: September 27, 2012
A BIG NOVEL ABOUT A SMALL TOWN …
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?
The Casual Vacancy is a very brave book. One thing is to set out to write a “book for adults”, but another is to write a book which so many people are bound to be looking for excuses to hate in a way which is this easy to hate. The immediate problem is that it quickly gets hard to keep up with. The reader is introduced to a very large number of characters without being given enough time to start caring about any of them. There is also a sense that Rowling is trying a bit too hard to demonstrate that she is, in fact, writing for adults. In the opening stages of the book I often thought it was gratuitous, and found myself thinking “This book contains adult content, and you want me to realise you aren’t afraid of writing about sex and drugs. I get it. Now make it less pointless please.”
One quickly realises that the underlying story itself isn’t as important as the story of the individual characters, their lives, and their own personal situations. They all live in a small, relatively stable, boring-in-a-good-way community. The death of a popular local councilor nudges the community out of equilibrium, and slowly, like a planet nudged out of its orbit, it gradually comes closer to crashing and burning. The book conveys this sense of impending doom very well.
Despite that the books tries a bit too hard to be ‘dark’ in its opening stages, after a while it does get genuinely dark. It almost seems like Rowling did her best to include as many adult themes as possible, and the range of taboos and uncomfortable subject matter included in this one book is almost impressive. Unfortunately it sometimes gets a little too relentless. This isn’t a comment on the content itself, I’ve read worse, but I think dark books are much better if they have an element of subtlety about them. Everything in this book is in your face, and very little is left to the imagination. This makes it a lot less disturbing and effective than it could have been if the reader had been forced to think a little more for themselves about the issues presented. I also don’t think some more comic relief would have gone amiss. I don’t mind having a book grind my face down in the mud, but it would be much more effective and uncomfortable if it had occasionally given me a breath of fresh air to remind me of what I’ve been missing.
I’ve seen some headlines complaining that this book is a socialist manifesto of sorts. While it does have an obvious moral message, I’d disagree that it is inherently political. The book does force the reader to confront a very wide range of issues that, for people with certain political persuasions, might be comfortable to forget about and ignore. This is another thing the books does very well, it sheds light on a lot of very tough issues without getting too preachy about them, and it presents them in a way which seems real and raw.
Despite this book’s flaws, and there are a few, I still quite liked it. It is not by any means a bad book. The story goes on for longer than it needs to, but it never gets too boring, and the ending is good. It is, obviously, not a book I would be quick to recommend. This book deliberately sets out to offend, and keeps on doing it just in case you weren’t offended the first times. There are also a few scenes that do get genuinely intense, not as many as there should be in a book like this, but enough to make it an uncomfortable read at times. Whether one would like The Casual Vacancy or not would depend on whether one likes disturbing, uncomfortable and offensive books. If one doesn’t, there is no point in reading this book. If one does, there are better books out there, but this one is also worth a read.