Like many of my fellow Harry Potter fans, I was eager to devour J.K. Rowling’s latest offering for adults, The Casual Vacancy. The book tells the story of Pagford, a small West Country town and its miserable, petty inhabitants, all of whom seem to suffer from a surfeit of first-world problems. The stage is set in the first chapter when Barry Fairbrother, a local councilman, dies, leaving his council seat vacant. The subsequent squabbling, gossip and teenage revenge reminded me of the atmosphere in America’s suburbs, complete with the general obliviousness of the adults.
It must be difficult as a writer to completely switch audiences after such a wildly successful first foray into publishing. As with the Harry Potter books, I knew I could trust Rowling to deliver a story that wasn’t disappointing and that it wouldn’t be futile to get invested in the characters only to have an unsatisfying dénouement. I went into the book knowing full well that it was written for adults, but I suppose I wan’t expecting to find such blunt treatments of masturbation and other sex acts. It’s as if Rowling took all the more risqué things that were probably going on in the more unsavory nooks and crannies of Hogwarts and dumped them into this book.
Other reviewers have noted that the book’s best parts involve the town’s teenagers, and I agree with that assessment. The book excels particularly at showing how bullying can lead teens into negative coping behaviors, including self-harm. The story might as well be billed as a cautionary tale for parents on how not to deal with their teens. Virtually every parent in Pagford has no idea what their children are actually doing on a daily basis, and never seem to talk to them about their own lives. These adults are a self-absorbed bunch, from the drug users to the bored wives and even those in caring professions like medicine and social work.
With the adult characters, I got the sense that Rowling was exacting revenge on every unsavory person who’d ever crossed her or her friends in life. The ghost of Aunt Petunia returns in Shirley Mollison, a sanctimonious busybody who keeps exhaustingly meticulous track of every tit and tat from family and neighbors. Gavin Hughs stands in for every spineless cad of a boyfriend, leading on his desperate-to-please girlfriend but never committing. The Jawanda family plays the part of token minority family, enduring the town’s racism and insults whispered behind closed doors.
The book felt real to me, though I hope folks in most small British towns are generally a happier, more compassionate bunch. I gave this book three out of five stars on Goodreads.