The Casual Vacancy
by J. K. Rowling
Recommended Ages: 14+
When I admit that I waited to read J. K. Rowling's first novel for adults until the audio-book version came available at my local library, I knowingly risk my credibility as the book reviewer for the internet's Number One Harry Potter Fan Site. In fact, I left it till so late that I was still reading it when news broke that J. K. R. had published The Cuckoo's Calling under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Alas, to be scooped! A taste more bitter than earwax!
On the other hand, my strategy paid off so far as letting me hear the book narrated by the talented Tom Hollander, known around the world for his villainous role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—though it is his asphyxiatingly funny turn in Pride and Prejudice, as yet another character hoping to marry Keira Knightley, that most stands out in my memory. Between deftly handling the characters' variety of dialects and vocal colors, he delivers the narration with a sympathetic dignity that prompts thoughts such as, "J. K. Rowling does for small-town U.K. in the twenty-first century what George Eliot did for nineteenth-century ditto." All right, so the depiction of sex, drugs, and moral collapse in the homes, workplaces, and local politics of today's Everytown may be a lot grittier, grottier, and more potty-mouthed than anything you would expect from the author of Middlemarch, in any age. (Surprise! Adult Content Advisory!) But the manners and mores of the society Eliot captured in ink are not the manners and mores of today. And yet the weaving together of so many vividly distinctive characters' destinies into a sensitive, emotionally intelligent, tragically and cathartically inevitable whole, is a skill Rowling here demonstrates at a level that I think invites the comparison.
It begins and ends with death and public grief. The events that connect the deaths at opposite ends of this novel illustrate the unexpectedly many ways the people of one small town are connected to each other. The first death comes suddenly to Barry Fairbrother, a forty-something member of the Pagford parish council who coaches the girls' rowing crew and stands up for the poor and troubled residents of a lower-class subdivision. Barry's demise touches off a domino effect that spreads in several directions, many of them relating to a race to fill his vacant seat on the council. Political enmities and family conflicts escalate, while a mysterious hacker (or series of hackers) calling himself "The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother" logs into the Parish Council website, stirring up hidden agendas and long-buried secrets. And through it all, the only thing you know for sure is that problem child Stuart "Fats" Wall and rebellious teen Krystal Weedon don't have a chance. Especially with Barry gone, you know they're doomed. It's only a matter of finding out when and how.
Pagford, U.K., is a charming, historic West Country village adjacent to the larger, more diverse town of Yarvil. The old guard in parish politics wants to return to a simpler time, before a seedy development spilled over the Yarvil town line. Prejudice against foreigners, such as the married couple of Sikh doctors, and resentment of the high rates of unemployment, have led that faction to wish the problem of "The Fields" on Yarvil, complete with the addiction clinic that serves Krystal's heroin-addicted mother. No one could have fought for the Fields and its people as Barry did. Now that he is gone, three candidates come forward to fill his shoes, but each of them has skeletons in his closet. Successful lawyer Miles, whose father heads up the council, doesn't realize how unhappy his wife Samantha is. Insecure deputy headmaster Colin can scarcely control his own urges, let alone those of his amoral adopted son Fats. Abusive father Simon underestimates the fury that will drive his son Andrew to an act of defiance that will set loose an avalanche of ugly disclosures and even, ultimately, deadly results.
The ripples don't stop there. Revelations of adultery, a bullied girl's suicidal behavior, a rape, a last-chance junkie's relapse into drug use, a teenage couple's sexual experiments, a councilwoman's explosive tirade, and a campaign of vicious rumors drive parents and children, husbands and wives, doctors and patients, social workers and school teachers, into collisions that will change everybody's life. Some will be saved. Others will be destroyed. And readers who thought the creator of Harry Potter needed magic, make-believe, and syrupy kid's stuff to bring a world to life, will be surprised and impressed. Make no mistake; this book is not a comedy. It is a very serious story that does not pull any punches. It may leave you winded and feeling a funny sting at the corner of your eye. I'm not saying that sting is the only funny thing you will find in this book, but whimsical it is not. Convincing, however, it is. And of all the things that impress me about this book, what impresses me most is the realism of the picture it opens on my mental movie-screen, and the fully-fleshed humanity of the people in that frame. It's enough to convince me that, pen-name stunt or no, her next novel is worth looking into.