Reading this after the first rush of reviews had come out, I was prepared not to like it. I heard it called "dull" and "overlong" and "crude" and, of course, there were too many comparisons to Harry Potter. In a way, I'm glad I read all those reviews because they set my expectations low. If the author hadn't been J.K. Rowling, I probably would have taken it off my to-read list. But thankfully, I didn't. And I really did enjoy this book.
The story centers on the town of Pagford, England, where Barry Fairbrother has just died (of natural causes, nothing fishy here). Barry was a member of the town council so his death has created a "casual vacancy" that sets the town in a frenzy. Who will take his empty seat? It's an important election because the council is debating the fate of the Fields, a local council estate filled with poverty (as well as drugs, prostitution, etc.). Some families want to disassociate with the Fields and let nearby city Yarvil take responsibility for it and its rehabilitation clinic, Bellchapel. Others (like the late Barry Fairbrother) are pro-Fields and believe Fields residents can improve their lives with Pagford's influence (Barry is an example of this—he was born in the Fields). This drama draws in a lot of different people around town—current council members, potential council members, Barry's family and friends, citizens of the Fields, the teenage children of all these people, etc.—and the tension begins to build when anonymous postings on the council website attack various adults in town for their wrongdoings.
The vast number of main characters can be hard to keep straight at first. I would definitely recommend making some notes as you go along (I stuck post-its inside the back cover). But once you're midway through, you'll be surprised how well you know them all. There are 20 that I would consider integral (Howard & Shirley Mollison, Miles & Samantha Mollison, Barry & Mary Fairbrother, Colin & Tessa Walls, Fats Walls, Simon & Ruth Price, Andrew Price, Gavin Hughes & Kay Bawden, Gaia Bawden, Terri Weedon, Krystal Weedon, Robbie Weedon, Parminder Jawanda, and Sukhvinder Jawanda). And really, they are all interesting and important. I'd like to say that if I were the editor I would cut some, but thinking of it I can't decide who is extraneous. I found them all intriguing, even though they ALL made mistakes and were not very good people.
The teenagers were particularly well-drawn, I think, which is understandable given Rowling's experience. I had a hard time identifying with the adults in the story, but I understood and forgave the actions of most of the teenagers. They were all suffering and their actions were obviously the result of troubled homes.
The slow build-up to a boiling point, utilizing the council website and election, was very well done. Despite it being 500 pages long, I was never bored and finished it easily within a week.
So why didn't I love it? It's just hard to like a book like this. So much bad stuff is happening (ranging from plain old rudeness to abuse, rape, neglect, etc.) and nearly all the characters are unhappy. It's not a book that I can read and say I loved. That said though, Rowling could have made the story far more depressing if she'd wanted. There are bits she skips over and the descriptions are not very elaborate or affecting. If you do like this sort of negative atmosphere when reading, I would recommend The House of Sand and Fog (by Andre Dubus III) and Plainsong (by Kent Haruf), which are also built around a community of troubled characters and bad situations. Personally, I liked The Casual Vacancy more than those two, probably because it's not as depressing.
I'm so glad that Rowling has continued her writing career post-Harry and chose to do something unexpected. Here's hoping she writes another!
TITLE: The Casual Vacancy
AUTHOR: JK Rowling
PUBLICATION DATE: 27 September 2012
DATE FINISHED: 30 October 2012
VERDICT: 3/5 stars. Enjoyed it as much as you can enjoy a depressing book. :)