By: JK Rowling
Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Summary: 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?
“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”
Review: This book, admittedly, took me longer than I expected to get through. It’s been sitting on my “to read” shelf for over a year now, and has constantly been shifted aside for other books that I felt more in the mood to read. One major reason for this was that so many people were telling me it was bad/awful/boring/etc., and my mistake was that I believed them. Now, after finishing this book, I can say with definition that I disagree. I think the #1 thing that people forget to realize when reading this book is that it is not Harry Potter, despite the fact that JK Rowling’s name graces the cover. Many people compared it to a book created for children/young adults that takes place in an alternate reality (as far as we know) and deals with the supernatural. The Casual Vacancy is quite the opposite of that, so I’m not sure why this made sense to anybody. However, it is alike Harry Potter in one way: it still holds JK Rowling’s incredible writing. I’m a young adult in America, so I have pretty much 0% understanding of local British politics, so that’s why a lot of the stuff at the beginning kind of bogged me down, with talks of parishes and city councils and such. But once you get past all of that, the book becomes less about local government and more about a subject we all know tons about, regardless of our age/race/country of origin: humanity.
The simplicity of this story and the fact that it follows a trail of small, everyday common place tragedies such as a man dying of a heart attack and leaving behind a widow and children; a woman uprooting her child to naively follow the supposed love of her life; and the constant discussion and argument of the middle class to disassociate themselves from their lower class neighbors. This book, for this reason, is wildly accessible to almost any reader, and everyone can find at least one relatable story within. But it is the fact that all of these tragedies, when combined, result in far more intense and complex situations that makes this book such an amazing piece of work. Only Rowling can delve deep into English suburban drama and still have me turning every page like it’s a crime novel. Despite how complex it seems to get, every thread that connects pieces to the other is pulled tight or snapped entirely by the end of the novel, everything tied in a nice little bow or rid of completely. All in all, the book is slow-paced for the first three hundred pages and gone in the blink of an eye in the last two hundred, but Rowling keeps it popping – with her sick/dry sense of humor that appeals only to some (present company included), with details so vivid that the parish of Pagford is only one dream away, with anecdotes that develop the plots and characters so deeply that you can’t help but feel involved.
There are too many “main” characters in this novel for me to go about profiling any of them like I do in reviews of other books, but I will say this much: Rowling somehow makes me hate even the characters I thought I loved – and that is an art. Whether it be Parminder’s low-key psychosis masked by her otherwise relative brilliance; or Samantha’s eternal wish for her returned youth underlying her hatred toward her husband; or Gavin’s constantly excused asshole-ry and ignorance despite the fact that he seems like a decent human being, Rowling once again manages to create immensely complex characters considering how many of them there are mentioned in the one book. Perhaps the most poignant thing about the entire novel is that the only characters you end up rooting for are the teenagers/children, who get sucked into their parents’ adult drama and, secretly or not-so-secretely, play a large part in it. Even then, some of the children have their own dark secrets that come into play and have you rooting against them. All in all, the vast majority of these characters offer a real look at the spread of citizenry in any small town, and the way that all of them can be connected because of and despite these differences that work to separate them.
Ultimately, I really do recommend this book to those who enjoy Rowling’s work and want something different than Potter. Although I wouldn’t by any means say that it’s a great piece of literature or anything revolutionarily creative – thus keeping it from a five star rating- it does hold its own as a stand-alone book and does profile Rowling’s incredible writing well. For those who are wishing to have a book more similar to her work under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, it also is not a crime book or a who-dunnit. It really, truly is just the story of how humanity can twist and snap and morph into something almost beyond recognition, and how it can get there without anyone truly realizing it. It doesn’t make any sort of statement about how we can change, or how we should, but rather just offers the reader a chance to have a third-person glimpse into normal occurrences that, when viewed passively, don’t seem all that normal afterall. If you have even a slight interest in the book, I do recommend you pick it up. It’s definitely worth a read.