Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

As a member of a worldwide minority religion, it intrigued me when I heard that J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel has members of a Sikh family as some of the central characters.  As someone who had surrendered her childhood to the Harry Potter series, my loyalty and interest in her discovering how she has portrayed my religious community drew me to Rowling’s book.

For Harry Potter fans, it does not take long to realize that this is not suitable reading for children.  The Casual Vacancy refers to a seat opened up in the Parish Council of Pagford, a fictional British town, after the death of Barry Fairbrother.  For some, this opening in the council comes as a blessing while others begin towards the position in hopes of filling the new hole in the community.  Within the first ten pages, there is a vivid description of one central character which stands out, “Samantha’s dressing gown gaped open as she sat at the kitchen table, reveling contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms.”  Rowling continues with a detailed description of Samantha in this manner and also takes liberty in describing other characters in a similar manner.  As Rowling herself has mentioned constantly in interviews with the press, this is an adult novel.  “This is the thing I wanted to write next,” states Rowling in an interview with BBC.  She defends her freedom as a writer and claims that she did not feel the need to prove herself through this novel as a writer.  This is a story she wanted to tell.

The Casual Vacancy revolves around issues like poverty, strained parent-teen relationships, depression, anxiety, and death, all of which Rowling has experienced in her own life.  This novel has drugs, sex, adolescent sex in a cemetery, disparity between the rich and the poor, and the disaster of small town politics.  This is in stark contrast to Rowling’s best-selling Harry Potter series, which focuses on the central purpose of Harry’s life, fighting the evil Lord Voldemort who has terrorized the world for many years.  Although dark for the most part, the seven books of the series captured the hearts of children around the world.  The Harry Potter series and brand has made Rowling the only writer to have made so much profit from writing children’s books.

Rowling has faced negative criticism for the The Casual Vacancy, perhaps because from her drift from fantasy to reality and from the mythical children’s genre to a very realist and adult portrayal of a small town.

As with her previous works, Rowling’s strength remains in character development.  Rather than having one central character, the novel jumps from showing the life, thoughts, and actions of one character in one chapter to a completely different character in the next chapter.  There are approximately twenty major characters in the novel and many supporting characters who help to move the plot along.  Given that the reader is able to remember and keep track of all the different character, each character is individually defined from personality and looks to dialogue and actions.  Rowling attributes approximately 300 of the 512 total pages to the life story and family relationships of each of the characters in The Casual Vacancy.  Rowling does not choose any individual to stand out or be a hero; they are all flawed in their own ways, lovable because of the honesty with which they are portrayed yet worthy of criticism because of their in-built failings.

The plot is the election or selection of an individual to fill the casual vacancy in the Pagford Parish Council, which is revealed through the progressive development of the characters in the novel.  The characters are the plot.

Teenagers Andrew Price (Arf) and Stuart Walls (Fats) come to an understanding of the meaning of life, ‘“Yeah,” said fats.  “Fucking and dying.  That’s it, innit?  Fucking and dying.  That’s life.”’

Andrew’s parents are mismatched in their approach to disciplining their children, Ruth consistently giving in to Simon’s stubborn illogic.  “The furthest she [Ruth] ever went in irritation with her husband was on occasions when Simon, though basically in a good mood, started laying down the law for the fun of it.”  Simon is the master of the house, abusive and violent on any given day, despised by Andrew and terrifying to his younger son, Paul.

Fats’ relationship with his father, Colin, is similarly imbalanced.  Fats does everything in his power to spite Colin while Tessa, his mother, always attempts to stand as a barrier between the two, hiding each one’s flaws from the other.

The Sikh family is composed of Parminder, council member, General Practitioner, and a typical Indian mother with high expectations of her children; Vikram, her husband who gets the devotion of the town while she is subjected to cold gossip for her involvement in local politics; Rajpal and Jaswant, the ideal son and daughter who are academic achievers; and Sukhvinder, Parminder’s most troubled teenage daughter.  Sukhvinder is teased endlessly by Fats, who has named her “Tits-n-Tash.”  Rowling accurately depicts the racism that Sikhs face and the stereotypes they are placed in by using discriminatory phrases like “Paki bitch” and showing that other characters not only are ignorant of the Sikh religion and the beliefs it preaches, but also mislabel the family as being Hindu or Pakistani.

Barry Fairbrother’s widow, Mary, broods constantly and has the unwavering attention of her late husband’s best friend and lawyer, Gavin.  Gavin’s own relationship with social worker Kay is in a constant state of limbo, According to Kay’s daughter, Gaia, “He’s going to ditch her.  She’s so deluded.  He can’t wait to leave after they’ve done it.”  Gaia’s judgment also stems from the loathing she has for Kay’s decision to move from London to be closer to Gavin.

Krystal is from Fields, the financially deprived and drug-ridden part of Pagford.  With Barry Fairbrother’s death, the only father figure she has ever known is gone.  The sixteen-year-old has nobody to turn to as she deals with her heroin-addict mother, Terri, and tries to keep the family intact for the sake of her four-year-old brother, Robbie.  With little means, she tries to play the role of bad girl among her peers and also exhibits a sense of trying to fit in.  “Krsytal pretended to everyone that they had a television at home.  She watched enough at friends; houses, and at Nana Cath’s, to be able to bluff her way through.”

Howard and Shirley Mollison are going to all ends to bring their son Miles into the Parish council.  Married young, with two teenage daughters now, Miles; wife Samantha is intent on flirting during every social event and fulfilling her developing sexual fantasies to spite the boredom and routine life her husband has landed her in.

The lives of the multiple characters certainly hint at multiple plots; however, the unifying plot of the council election is a thread that merely moves the story forward.  Barry Fairbrother’s funeral is stretched out into the first of five parts.   The plot is drawn out through the whole book, which makes it more difficult to get through the book.  The subject matter is relentlessly gloomy, with very minimal comedic relief (even though J.K. Rowling has defined this book as a dark comedy) There are too many central characters and it feels almost like an obligation to finish the whole book.  The novel is lengthy, but well-written given its tragic and depressing nature; readers really have to wash out, delete, or trash Harry Pottermemories in order to judge this book fairly for its own literary merits.

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