For a story that’s supposed to be based upon an idyllic town, this is one that’s ‘casually vacant’ of the brightness and underlying morals most readers have come to associate with J.K. Rowling. I began Casual Vacancy apprehensively, internally at war with my love of her work and what critics have been saying. I knew it was marketed for the adult demographic – meaning that it is filled with swear words, social issues, and taboo topics. Yet, while reading it, I found certain reminders that it was written by the same author of the beloved Harry Potter series – the multitude of unique names, for one thing. Except Casual Vacancy is only about 500 pages, and not a seven-book series, which meant that I quickly got lost in a crowd of unknowns by the end of the third chapter.
Initially, the characters didn’t stand out to me. There was no marked hero – in fact, it felt that the only character truly branded with any kind of innate goodness was the one she chose to kill off at the beginning. Influenced by my psychology textbook readings, which I was working on at the time, I began to identify every character’s “id” (the Freudian label for the part of our mind that gives in to temptation). I even started diagnosing many of the characters with different disorders. As I got further into the story, I began to draw comparisons from Harry Potter characters – maybe in an effort to form attachments with them. I likened the uptight, morale and respectable Dr. Parminder Jawanda to Professor McGonagall, and Howard Mollison and his wife Shirley and their son Miles were analogous to Vernon, Petunia and Dudley Dursley.
The story begins with Barry Fairbrother dying. As an important member of the town of Pagford’s council, he leaves behind an empty seat, known as a ‘casual vacancy.’ The people of the town, after expressing their condolences (both sincere and otherwise) erupt into a full-on political war. Male members of the community step up in an attempt to fill Fairbrother’s role. The women gather up into a force of their own, supporting and undermining their husbands and families at every turn. But there actually ends up being more emphasis on the youth, rather than the adults. While this teenage gang does not have to face the powerful external forces like Harry and his friends, they must deal with their own personal demons. The novel seems obsessed with issues of sex, masturbation, child abuse, hatred, drugs, self-mutilation and bullying. These teens are determined to prove themselves in a world full of hopelessly traditional adults, yet employ the same methods of brutality they observe in the adults in their lives.
Upon finishing the story, I felt as hopeless as the characters. I pictured Rowling calmly finishing the novel with its ambiguous ending, and imagined that she believed a “happily ever after” is only possible in an imaginary world like Harry’s. Our reality – a concept reinforced by her references to Rhianna’s lyrics and a middle-aged woman’s awkward sexual fantasy involving a band with a creepy similarity to One Direction – is doomed to human cause and effect. We make certain errors that cannot be fixed, and are forced to live with their consequences forever. In the same way, I found the climax of the novel tragic, too predictable, and unable to resolve many of the longstanding problems the people of Pagford had invested so much time in.
And yet…Favourite Quote: “It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?”