Author: J. K. Rowling, 2012
Genre: Contemporary. Tragicomedy. Relationships. Social issues. Politics. Drugs. Domestic/Sexual violence.
Other Details: Hardback. 503 pages.
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? - synopsis from publisher's website.
I was pleasantly surprised at how good this novel was. I wasn't planning on reading it but the librarian in charge of our monthly reading group encouraged us to borrow copies and I am so pleased that she did. I found that it exceeded my expectations and proved a compelling read. It is very different to the Harry Potter series though Rowling's emphasis upon character and strong story-telling that made the fantasy series so memorable was clearly in evidence throughout. She has an ensemble cast of characters and while few are likeable, they do come across as very human in terms of their personalities. I did print out a newspaper article that listed the novel's characters and found this a very handy way to keep track of them.
Its emphasis upon local politics and the secrets lurking under the surface of small West Country town reminded me of Winifred Holtby's 'South Riding', written in 1936, which shared many of the same underlying themes such as the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, welfare and education issues and the often cut-throat aspects of local politics. The language is very strong in places and drug use and sexual and domestic violence are depicted. It isn't all doom and gloom though the humour is quite dark.
The Casual Vacancy is a novel that will not appeal to everyone and will likely not be well received by anyone that expected the kind of whimsy found in the Potter series. I noted on Goodreads that quite a few members were very excited about the news of its publication on the basis of their love of the Harry Potter books and then expressed disappointment at the actuality. Still it did win the 2012 Goodreads Choice for Best Fiction 2012, which shows that quite a few readers share my opinion of its worth. The novel is being adapted as a mini-series by the BBC for 2014.
"J K Rowling's first novel for adults, a full-on evocation of modern British class war, is hugely impressive" - glowing review in 'The Guardian' in which the reviewer draws some interesting resonances between it and the Harry Potter novels.