Set in a small West Country town in England, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults teems with sex, but is not torrid; it is saturated with characters’ unhappiness, but not depressing; and it’s concerned with poverty and prejudice without becoming a polemic. “The Casual Vacancy” plods, but it also entertains.
Like the Harry Potter books that made her a billionaire, Rowling’s latest is concerned with good and evil, and the shades between. However, unlike her stories about a boy wizard who thwarted death, in this black social comedy the hero dies at the beginning.
Barry Fairbrother was the moral compass of Pagford. But when he suddenly passes away, filling his position on the Parish Council becomes the community’s obsession. Two huge issues are on the council’s agenda: one, whether to return “the Fields,” public housing where Barry grew up and which he passionately defended, to a nearby city threatened by austerity measures; and two, whether to force an addiction treatment center out of its building. The person who takes Barry’s position could either continue his work or undo it.
The adults in Pagford, by and large, are the kind of self-obsessed people you dread being stuck next to at dinner parties. Shirley Mollison, a social climber who wants her son on the council, is Lady Macbeth without the hand-wringing. Samantha, her daughter-in-law, is a lustful malcontent. Dr. Parminder Jawanda is a Sikh outsider whose skin color, anger, and aloofness set her apart from her neighbors. Other main female characters are their own worst enemies; and Shirley’s husband, Howard Mollison, and the rest of the men all suffer from arrested development, as if the claustrophobia of Pagford has permanently stunted their emotional maturity.
Once someone with the username “The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother” begins hacking the Parish Council website and posting candidates’ and a council member’s deepest secrets, long-simmering resentments boil over, making the campaign for Barry’s seat as full of casualties as a military coup. “The victims of the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother were mired in hypocrisy and lies, and they didn’t like the exposure,” surly teenager Stuart “Fats” Wall thinks. “They were stupid bugs running from bright lights. They knew nothing about real life.” Neither, it turns out, does Stuart.
Mental illness, rape, drug abuse, incest, physical abuse, poverty, and betrayal all play a role in the plot. It’s an overwhelming number of evils for a major metropolis to hold, never mind a small town.
Rowling has a honed empathy for young adults, so it’s not surprising that her teens are the most fascinating characters. In many ways, they’re the ones really running the show. Restless and hormonal, savvy and angst-riddled, they disdain the technological and social nincompoops who are their parents. Pagford’s teens look to escape the reality of their lives by whatever means available — whether it’s “shagging,” cutting, drugs, booze, or geography.
Especially in the beginning, some parts are slow moving, like wading through spring mud, and Rowling can get bogged down by her love of exposition and repetition (if Samantha doesn’t have something dribbling out her mouth, then she has “slugged” wine into it). However, Rowling has a talent for crafting tense scenes and biting humor that keep the narrative from becoming dull throughout. Describing Krystal Weedon, a foul-mouthed teen from the Fields whose life has been one tragedy and trial after the other, Rowling writes, “Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”
The themes about poverty and class resonate the most. The battle over what to do with the Fields is a fight about deep-rooted prejudices and the reality of social mobility. “Responsibility, you say: what happened to personal responsibility?” Howard rants. “[T]he concept of earning a living is completely foreign to them; generations of nonworkers, and we’re expected to subsidize them.” While Tessa Wall, Stuart’s mother, observes that Barry, “had been a living example of what they proposed in theory: the advancement, through education, from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society.” Other characters from the Fields are not as fortunate.
The story spirals into melodrama in the final sections, culminating in tragedies that a number of characters had a chance to prevent. The ending is even darker than the beginning; there’s a dash of absurdity, but no resolution.