A Casual Page-Turner
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
First Line: “Barry Fairweather did not want to go out to dinner.”
I had expected The Casual Vacancy to be quaint. I suppose I heard “small town” and got my hopes up for a generous 500-page portion of a cozy murder mystery set in the English countryside, sprinkled with colorful characters, dialects, which ended with a feeling of, “Oh, how lovely if the town of Pagford were real…”
Around page ten, I realized my expectations were dead wrong. The novel is no cross between the Agatha Christie genre and Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. This book is completely situated in the present-day, and aside from a delicatessen that’s been in business for 40 years or so, there isn’t much with this setting that struck me as charming. My take-away word for this book is “gritty.”
The town of Pagford is politically divided, and some difficult social issues are explored from both sides of the fence. There are some citizens who want the slum-y area in the outskirts of Pagford to be “removed” from their district; and others who, well, are optimistic about the future. An addiction clinic is also up for discussion, and the unexpected demise of Barry Fairweather makes the conflicts even more pressing. With Barry gone, the town council’s political deadlock is broken. Those fighting to keep the drug center running, for example, are down a vote; and the other, more conservative council members are vying to put on of their own in the open seat.
While the start-up conflict of the novel stems from the boundary line disputes, the true conflicts come from everyone’s internal struggles. Everyone in town has a secret—and I mean everyone. There’s drug abuse, domestic abuse, extreme bullying, countless marital frustrations, and a fair dose of psychological disorders. As the novel progresses, it’s the individual characters’ complicated personal lives that drive the plot, making the conflict with the council members more of a backdrop.
The reader eventually finds themselves yearning to see which troubled teen or disgruntled spouse will overcome their obstacles. Although everyone is in conflict with each other, it’s surprisingly easy—and confusing—for the reader to sympathize with all the characters strolling across the page. Even as they’re fighting with one another, it’s difficult to solely support one side. I find that The Casual Vacancy is, ultimately, an honest and in-depth exploration of humanity.
Bottom Line: Definitely a page-turner, and though I don’t regard this novel as the next best literary triumph, it’s sure to offer plenty of discussion opportunities at next month’s book club.