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Book Review: The Casual Vacancy Print E-mail

book_the_casual_vacancy.jpgAuthor: J.K. Rowling

Publisher: Little,Brown

Reviewed by Stephen Keim

I read two of the Harry Potters, early ones, before the volume size grew too big. Good story telling, if a bit derivative, may have been my fairly unconsidered verdict. My overwhelming memory of Harry Potter is sixteen year old Seb reading the novels, voraciously, in the grandstand at every Olympic Games venue we went to in October, 2000. Seb did stop reading for the duration of Cathy Freeman’s great sixty seconds but it was a closer run thing than the actual race.

It was Andrew who chose The Casual Vacancy as the Blokes’ Book Club book over the last Christmas/New Year holiday period. I wouldn’t have troubled, otherwise. It is fiction, after all.

The bulk of the action of The Casual Vacancy takes place in Pagford, a small town in the west country of England. Pagford is fortunate enough to have its own local government status as a parish. Both the village and Pagford Parish Council live in the shadow of the nearby town of Yarvil. On the Pagford side of the border between town and village is a subsidised housing estate called The Fields.

The Fields and its residents hang heavily over the politics of Pagford.

The eponymous casual vacancy occurs in the opening pages of the novel. The popular leader of the empathetic and progressive faction on the parish council, Barry Fairbrother, suffers a cerebral haemorrhage on the way to the golf club on Sunday evening to have dinner with his wife. The controlled standoff on the council is destabilised. An election is to take place. The conservatives seek to take advantage. The progressives struggle to regain their poise.

The Casual Vacancy is a study in modern class. Business owners, successful and otherwise, the large land owner of the district and nominal aristocrat, doctors, school teachers, lawyers and social workers play roles on either side of the factional divide. Others, including factory workers and the residents of the Fields, among them, the receivers of benefits, junkies and drug dealers, play different roles, sometimes more passive, sometimes pivotal.

The reader will love some characters and cheer the downfall of others. But no character is presented entirely unsympathetically. This is not a novel that needs villains. Conflict is sufficient.

The Casual Vacancy is also a study in families and relationships. Relationships between parents and their school attending children are played out. At the same time, those same children fade in and out of their own friendships and more serious relationships. Class plays its role here within the confines of the Winterdown Comprehensive School. Here, also, the constructive, almost saintly, leadership role of Mr. Fairbrother is sorely missed.

And relationships between husband and wife, between more and less reluctant lovers, and between son and daughter and wife and mother-in-law, illustrate the saw that things are not always what they seem on the surface.

The Casual Vacancy is multi-focussed. The action proceeds slowly as the reader receives insight into the inner life of as many as fifteen different characters. A hacking scandal of the outdated computer system and webpages of the Parish Council throws shock waves into the social (and inner) life of the characters. The shock waves are no less effective for the unknown hacker or hackers having used the nom de plume of “the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”.

But action is not wanting at the end. Like a Shakespearean tragedy on speed, The Casual Vacancy allows the several fatal flaws of the characters, that the reader has come to know and fear, to find their own dynamic. And tragedy is piled upon disaster in the final fifth of the book.

Out of the ashes, almost as if guided by Mr. Fairbrother’s spirit, those who are left standing find their own path to redemption.

Ms. Rowling appears to write effortlessly. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy and my limited Harry Potter reading, one feels that a shopping list by Ms Rowling would exude plot development. And a clutch of interesting characters would be found embedded in her list for holiday packing.

The difficulties and injustices that fill the pages of The Casual Vacancy suggest that Ms. Rowling’s appreciation of life’s challenges was justification for the escapism of magic and fantasy adventure found in the Harry Potter books. The lives of Pagford residents are not pretty.

The Casual Vacancy also has its heroes. Perhaps, the most memorable is the unlikely Krystal Weedon whose mother is both a drug addict and a part time whore. Despite her disadvantages, Krystal finds a way to dream.

The destiny of Krystal’s dreams defines the book’s denouement as the casual vacancy left by Mr. Fairbrother set the course of its narrative.

The Blokes were lukewarm in their praise of The Casual Vacancy.

Then, again, I never said they were good judges of a book.

Stephen Keim


2 April 2013

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