Literature: The Casual Vacancy

PRIOR to its release, The Casual Vacancy was almost as well-guarded a secret as J. K. Rowling’s previous books; but while this may have worked well with the Harry Potter series, in this case it might have created a bit of an anti-climax.

The novel is centred in the quaintly rural town of Pagford, and the drama and discontent ill-shielded by its prettily presented, tourist-driven façade.  The ‘casual vacancy’ is a newly relinquished seat on Pagford’s parish council – a seat which holds a surprising amount of power and sway over the lives of many.

Interestingly, this is a book which opens with the death of its hero – one of the main characters is left no more or less than a pile of memories.  It is the absence of Barry Fairbrother that sparks the entire plot, but his presence remains irrefutably tangible throughout.  Be they friend, family, enemy or acquaintance, Barry seems to have left an impression on almost every Pagfordian, and it is this that drives the events of the story.

Though often humorous in its pinching and prodding of a very British community, The Casual Vacancy isn’t an immensely easy-going or cheery read.  Also, when Rowling announced that she was going to be trying to get away from Harry Potter, she was making an understatement.  The side of Rowling’s writing hitherto restrained by HP’s younger audience has been unleashed, and with this freedom comes a book that is cover-to-cover sex, drugs and R ‘n’ B.

Possibly those who heard Rowling was attempting to modernise a traditional nineteenth century style of novel – following one small village and the lives of its inhabitants – and thought, “Ahh, that’s a pretty idea,” might be underestimating the implications of ‘modern’.  But once you get over the fact that the orchestrator of your childhood has dropped the C-bomb, Rowling’s keen insight into the mechanics of relationships and human character can begin to shine through.  Rowling’s genius lies in the fact that there will be something relatable, something you recognise – in yourself or in others – within the pages of this book, possibly in a place you would never have expected it.

I’d say Rowling has truly accomplished her objective; she has created a book that stands completely apart from the Harry Potter series, and which should not be read simply out of nostalgia or reverence for its author.  I would recommend it as an interesting read, but not to those looking for anything light-hearted or warm.  This is a gritty attempt at exposing a few of the darker undertones of modern Britain, and should be treated as such.