J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is a bit of modern day literature—though not necessarily a classic. The tone and over-all feel of the story is down-trodden. It very much reminds me of the American Naturalism (and a bit of Realism) movement, where almost everything is depressing and dog-eat-dog. At the end though, there is a teeny tiny glimmer of hope that shows the reader that not all may be lost, breaking out of the “everyone gets syphilis and dies” motif.
The characters in this book, though, are extraordinarily rich, which is quite an accomplishment seeing how the story is told from about 10+ different points of view. Each person has their own unique voice, mannerisms, and insecurities. And man, do they have insecurities. Nobody is happy. No one is really all that likeable, which makes them a bit difficult to identify with. The teenagers are beyond angsty. Each have their own deep-seated emotional problems. And the adults aren’t doing much better. They have miserable marriages, abusive spouses, or just plain mental illness. Drug-use, rape, self-mutilation, and general debauchery abound.
The Casual Vacancy is the story of a small village, Pagford, which is thrown into an uproar when Barry Fairbrother drops dead in a parking lot from an aneurysm. Fairbrother was a member of the local council, and the book revolves around the political intrigue of this small town and the slight power shift that Fairbrother’s death could potentially cause. A small, out-side area of the village is what’s at stake. The Fields is the welfare ghetto. It houses the more unwanted members of society—the drug-addicts, the unfortunate single-mothers, and low-lifes. Half of the council wants to cede the Fields to the neighboring town of Yarvil, and the other half want to try to help those who live there. The seat opened by Fairbrother’s death offers a potential resolution to this split. Also at stake is the fate of a methadone clinic. The story is told through the eyes of several characters (too many to really detail in this short review). The reader picks up bits and pieces of the over-all story from each chapter, and finally can start putting more of it together about half-way through the book.
Though well-written and richly characterized, The Casual Vacancy lacks a gripping, centralized story. It’s more about the characters, but when all is said and done, hardly anything is resolved, and the reader is left with more questions than necessary. When I finished, I actually verbalized “That’s it?” The characters are the story, so the characters should have been the main focus of the end, and very few of them get any real solid ending.