Something a bit different to the usual genre today. It’s been a while since I finished a book and this one did take me a bit longer to get through than a lot of what I’ve been reading recently (though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Last month I read only J.K. Rowling novels and I held on to The Casual Vacancy way into the month of April.
Title: The Casual Vacancy
Author: J. K. Rowling
Date published: September 27th 2012
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.
Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.
Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils … Pagford is not what it first seems.
And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
This isn’t a Harry Potter novel. If you loved Harry Potter that is no guarantee this will be for you. The novel explores deep social issues with detailed content on drugs, sex, adultery and rape. What runs thicker than this though, is the detailed social behaviour of a selection of Pagford’s finest; It’s an epic dialogue of the human condition.
The entire novel is written from the point of impact – the death of Barry Fairbrother and the ripple effect this has on the people of Pagford. Each character is so human because they are so honestly flawed; even Barry through the words of those he left behind. Rowling’s exploration of what it is to be human is really well done and there were few (if any) characters I couldn’t imagine as real. In terms of the underlying social stance I felt it to be slightly more sympathetic to the lower classes if only because Krystal was such a well-liked character.
We are provided with a macro view of the town of Pagford through micro interactions and perspectives and the detail is fabulously interesting. In particular the individual perspective of people towards others was really fun to read. Particularly when they’re all at the Walls house discussing the Council meeting – the way each misinterprets the others’ behaviour was fascinating.
503 pages is a lot of reading to commit yourself to but it seemed to me that the length of of the text was completely necessary to keep it both human and real. We needed to see the unravelling of the characters over a real-time period in order to fully appreciate the truths Rowling was trying to present. The pace therefore isn’t super speedy but the sheer volume of characters is probably the biggest reason for this. In order for each one to be properly developed the writing is structured similarly to the Harry Potter books (with introductions for the first part followed by much of the story.) It really picks up at around page 300 but the bit before is so integral to making the whole thing shine (plus it’s interesting despite the slower pace); like I said before it keeps it real.
What I really liked about the diversity of characters was the way each one could be identified with in a different way. There’s a discussion on the Goodreads page for this book that asks readers to “Describe your most and least favourite characters in this book” and the answers prove just how much this book changed based on the individual. Some people’s favourite characters are some of my least favourites and I think that’s wonderful. For me, she gave the most easily palatable voices to the youth of Pagford and uses Fat’s perspective as a kind of analogy for the ideas she is exploring:
“The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defence. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretence, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labelled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.”
What’s interesting is that this mantra isn’t enough to keep Fats from his own tragic downfall and he is constantly in a twisted battle with himself (as I saw it) living as somebody else himself, engulfed in a pretence he didn’t even realise he was exuding. I actually really disliked him as a character until the end – whilst he suffered he really needed a catalyst to change his behaviour and, had it not happened, he could’ve turned into an awful, awful person.
I adored the flashback that ended the novel. It seemed to me that in that moment the girls represented all the adults in their little town. The only difference was that they were working together towards a common goal, not fighting and pulling against one another but truly supporting one another to make their worlds better. For me it hinted that one day in Pagford things might run smoothly and that, perhaps, people just need to support one another a little more…
If you like the idea of knowing what’s going on in people’s heads this is a good choice for you – it has a lot to do with individuality and human interaction.
4 out of 5
Find it on Goodreads
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk / Bookdepository
If you liked ‘The Casual Vacancy’ I’d recommend Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood or The Hours by Michael Cunningham
If you have any other suggestions or insights feel free to message me or leave them in the comments section below!
– Cat –