The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

This post is a little ‘after the fact’, especially considering that I started reading the book about a year ago, right when it came out. It didn’t take me a year to read it, barely a month, actually. I just took a year long break from it (I don’t remember why) until a few days ago, when I read the remaining two hundred pages in a gleeful daze. It’s a great book and I want to kick myself for not finishing it and being able to say this earlier. It’s a shocking, sad, fantastic book. The weird thing is, I possibly couldn’t tell you just exactly why it was so great. But I could try.

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 fa├žade 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?

In a way, nothing really surprising happened. It was a run-off-the-mill story, or a bunch of intricately woven, typical, small-town stories with nothing really new and Quidditch-ey popping out unexpectedly. Which may be one of the two reasons that Harry Potter fans couldn’t appreciate this book. The other could be the expectation that it would be anything like Harry Potter, content-wise. Since she made it plenty clear beforehand that The Casual Vacancy would be an adult novel, that hope was simply silly. The first point is something I’d partly agree with. The story, the actual incidents that took place – the drug-addicted mom, the ‘lost cause’ girl, the secrets, the lies, they were all predictable in the way that any non-fantasy set in a small town is. The story wasn’t new because it was realistic. That being said, I do believe the book had a magic of its own. For a while now, what with reading Discworld, discovering Neil Gaiman and other fantastic authors, I’ve wondered if I was a bit too obsessed with Harry Potter, if it was a tiny bit overrated. But I was wrong. J. K. Rowling is an amazing writer and she’s managed to turn what could have been a really dull book into something quite unique. She has created the most interesting characters, even the ones we get just a glimpse of. She can really look inside people’s heads, young and old, and has described their thoughts with a frank honesty that most of us don’t even grant ourselves. In the oddest way, Barry Fairbrother, the dead guy who is only talked about, ends up being the most rounded character in the book. The book makes a point that is at once blatant and very subtle. And in a very Harry Potteresque way, it ends with a running gag. It was when I read that very last line that I realized just how awesome the book was.

Here’s a review by someone who isn’t a Harry Potter fanatic. You know, a fair review.