Let me say right off the bat that J.K. Rowling deserves all the millions of dollars she’s made as an author. This book, her first written for adults, has all the original plot and vivid characters of the Harry Potter series that made her famous. This is a good book on several levels.
“The Casual Vacancy” appears at first glance to be a charming account of life in an up-scale English village. Pagford has all the ingredients of modern life: small town values combined with quirky English personalities. What seems like an ideal setting to raise children is quickly revealed to be a morass of failed marriages and failing businesses.
Although the book has a few too many characters, the plot settles quickly into the story of five families. Their problem is simple: one of the town council members has died and left a vacancy on the board. As they jockey for political gain, some of the characters decide to run for election to fill the vacancy. What follows is a sometimes degrading, sometimes humorous struggle to gain advantage, while appearing to be only interested in the greater good of the village of Pagford.
This is one of Rowling’s gifts as a writer: she is a wonderful observer of the human condition. Her descriptions of the smallness of everyday life in the idyllic village of Pagford ring true. The casual selfishness of the adults, while all the time ignoring their families, creates an almost theater-like reality. Each of these people think that nobody sees what their real motives are, which of course isn’t true. The victims of this charade are their teenage children, and herein lies the meat of the plot.
Because of the hypocrisy inherent in small town politics, the teenagers soon find a means of revenge for their treatment, either real or imagined. Rowling has always done a good job with young characters, and these teens are so alive that they almost seem to come from your own youth. Because their lives are lived with all the drama of adolescence, and because their parents are too self-centered to notice or care about their own children, the teens enter the political fray in a manner that only they can.
Several of them begin anonymous postings on the internet, and soon the whole town is scandalized by the secrets that are exposed. Although the information is not true, it is so intimate that no one ever suspects the authors are not adults. And of course, none of the adults is technologically savvy enough to ever guess the identity of the poster, much less stop the posts. The fallout from the postings, and the outcome of the election, seem secondary to the awful realities of some of these young lives. And here lies the threat of this book.
“The Casual Vacancy” is a story about some awful, harrowing lives. Physical abuse, casual sex, and drug addiction is the reality of some of these young lives, and a younger teen reading this book will be plunged into a strange world that even adults will find dark. Not everyone in this story has had a comfortable upbringing, and the families living in poverty add to the feeling of despair that hovers over the story.
One of the stronger characters — a thoughtful, intelligent young girl, not able to live up to her unthinkably critical mother, is a cutter, and successfully hides her scarred arms from the whole community, until her own strength of character forces her secret out into the open.
Yes, this is a dark book. I can only hope Rowling’s next book is as beautifully written, and slightly more hopeful.