A rather oxymoronic title, Rowling’s first adult novel is as insidious as it is unsettling. Its power resides in the tension created by opposites, exposing hard-edged issues behind the closed doors of suburbia. Although the tale is far too long and holds a rather fanciful view of itself, I doubt that anyone can get far into Rowling’s tale and remain unaffected, whether or not they can tell where the plot is heading. Set in the fictional bucolic village of Pagford, a town as claustrophobic as the relationships depicted, The Casual Vacancy unflinchingly tells
a sad story of teenage friendships and family relationships going devastatingly awry.
frustration at a girl’s love for her junkie mother is juxtaposed with a capacity
for great brutality as the rest of the characters swarm in their neuroses. In
what could be construed as an annoying and rather tedious read, the plot is set
in motion when local denizen Barry Fairbrother collapses at the golf club. His sudden demise is greeted
first with shock and then with glee by Miles Mollison and his sexually frustrated wife, Samantha, who finds Miles mostly absurd and increasingly dull. Barry’s death lays in Shirley Mollison’s lap “like a brand new baby.” Shirley, the administrator of the Pagford Parish’s website,
suddenly sees an opportunity to further propel her husband, Howard Mollison, into the spotlight. An extravagantly obese man who owns a popular delicatessen, Howard is filled with the sense of a greater design in “this sudden rearrangement.”
The unexpected and casual vacancy caused by Barry's death dominates the minds of everyone in the village. Ruth and her sadistic husband, Simon Price, live in the isolated Hilltop House with their teenage sons, Andrew and Paul. Forced to endure a daily minefield of his father's viciousness, Andrew’s contempt at Simon's constant physical and verbal abuse becomes “a distillation of spite” that
produces unintended and deadly consequences. At the same time, lawyer Gavin Hughes is in love with Barry’s widow, vaguely repelled by the intrusive erotic kisses from his social worker girlfriend, who mistakenly relocated from London to be with him.
There’s a fair amount of miscommunication leading to violence, drug abuse, and casual sex as the avid self-interest and feverish speculation of who will replace Barry consumes almost everyone. When the focus turns to The Fields, the sprawling estate lying on the outskirts of Yarvil, Pagford’s sister city, its dirty grey houses, spray-painted with initials and obscenities,
acts as a backdrop to the hardscrabble life of Krystal Weedon, a “byword and dirty joke,” and her junkie mother, Tessa, whose world is defined by bruised arms, bleeding, and the constant psychological bludgeoning from her pimp boyfriend who feeds her habit.
Although Rowling is given to dense paragraphs with many extraneous scenes of repetitive dialog, she has--thank goodness--effectively cast aside the magical extravagances of
Harry Potter. Hailing from the council estates herself, she brings a unique perspective to her subject. She may now live among England's elite, but she’s never lost her sympathies for the downtrodden, her tale evidence that she’s a brilliant if detached observer of all levels of society. While Rowlings' flawed characters often have a tenuous relationship to the facts, their toughness seems to be the great unifier. Most of the characters know nothing except what they hear through the gossip mill and on Shirley’s amateurishly constructed website. It’s the teenagers who really challenge the town’s self-serving adherence to custom, embarking on an ugly act of filial disloyalty that springs from
a primordial soup of anger, frustration and fear.
As Rowlings' characters become mired in the very worst of English traits, it becomes hard to disapprove of the author's efforts. It takes a brave reader to make it to the end of this book, yet it’s a tale that should be read in the context of its exploitation of the darker sides of life with its attendant greed, rank inequality, and vague hope that something good might miraculously appear.