Since I’m a massive Harry Potter fan, you might be surprised to learn I only just got around to reading The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. There were a couple of reasons for this: firstly, the reviews were a bit mixed and I’d actually been warned off it by a couple of people; I’m never afraid to make up my own mind but I wasn’t in any hurry. And secondly, much like with Harry Potter, there’s a little part of me that rebels whenever something’s the subject of huge hype, and I do tend to go out of my way to avoid following the crowd, at least for a while.
But anyway, I’ve read it now. And I don’t care what anyone says – I loved it. It couldn’t be more different to Harry Potter – there’s no magic, no Dobby (unfortunately. Poor Dobby…), a lot less death and destruction, and quite a bit of language that Mrs Weasley would definitely not approve of.
Many of the reviews complain that the pace of the story is too slow after the action-packed Potter novels. I’m not sure I agree with that distinction; anyone who’s read Order of the Phoenix knows JK is no stranger to making a story last. But it’s true that The Casual Vacancy is quite a slow burner.
In the opening pages, Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm whilst out for dinner at the local golf club, and that’s the most dramatic event that happens for quite some time. His death leaves a so-called ‘casual vacancy’ on the parish council in the small town of Pagford, which is populated by a cast of decidedly Dursley-ish characters, looking down on everyone around them – particularly the run-down housing estate attached to the town – while remaining blissfully ignorant of the cracks appearing in their own lives. Rowling spends a good chunk of time developing these characters, none of whom, at least to begin with, appear to have any redeeming features whatsoever; in fact for a while I really thought she’d killed off the only decent person in town within the first five pages. As the election to fill the vacancy (which it soon becomes clear is anything but casual) looms, the town heads towards civil war as its residents completely fail to recognise the issues they should be concerned about, and focus instead on petty rivalries and their own prejudices.
The action picks up again towards the end of the novel, by which time it’s become pretty clear which characters Rowling wants us to side with. But even without the dramatic conclusion, I found the story had its own kind of suspense, and I was just as hooked as if it had been action all the way. The election brings out rumours and revelations, which turn friends against friends, husbands against wives and parents against children. I was desperate to see if some of the more despicable characters would get their comeuppance, and to find out if any of them had learnt from the novel’s events. The final sentence of the book is very telling in that respect; that’s all I’ll say.
We’re definitely not in Hogwarts any more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Casual Vacancy is funny in places, tragic in others and worryingly realistic throughout in its portrayal of both ends of the social spectrum. I tend to judge books by my own reaction to them, and while reading this novel, I found myself in one place cheering aloud and in another gasping in horror, with a range of other emotions in between. Some characters I wanted to slap; others I wanted to shake some sense into. But I can’t think of anyone to whom I was totally indifferent.
If you like your novels to jump from drama to drama, then this probably isn’t for you. But don’t avoid it because you think it’s about a parish council election; it’s about a lot more than that. And if nothing else, it’ll make you feel good about yourself, because no matter what you do, you’ll never be as vile as half the characters in this novel. I hope…?!