PUBLISHER: Little Brown
RELEASE DATE: 27th Sept 2012
FORMAT: Hardback, 503 pages
GENRE: Thriller, Realist
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?
I know this book isn’t in a genre we normally review on BCC, but I just couldn’t resist. Since the first announcement of J.K. Rowling’s new book for the adult market I was incredibly excited at the prospect of reading something new from her. I grew up reading the Harry Potter series and it was a huge part of my life for a long time. I knew when starting THE CASUAL VACANCY that it would be nothing like Harry Potter, but still had high expectations of Rowling’s writing.
It began with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor in the little town of Pagford. He dies suddenly of an aneurysm, throwing the community into disarray. His death frees up a casual vacancy on the council, with a host of candidates waiting to take his place, with sabotage waiting in the wings.
The main issue for the council to resolve is that of the Fields, a council estate on the outskirts of Pagford. There are those on the council who wish to cut the Fields off from the town, and remove the funding for rehab programmes which the residents are so dependent on. It is mainly the higher class families who wish to make the distinction between Pagford and the Fields clear, but there are still those who are desperately fighting against the discrimination of the Fields.
It soon becomes clear how much of an impact Barry had on the community, affecting the lives of both young and old as he was involved in coaching a girl’s rowing team at the local school as well as his parish activities. He was an advocate for the Fields, and was starting to bring the council around to his way of thinking. His death has rocked the community and starts throwing up old secrets that were better left hidden…
There were a whole host of characters throughout this book, resulting in a wealth of different perspectives. At first I thought I might struggle to keep up with them all, but it proved easy to keep up with the lives of the different personalities, particularly as all their lives interconnect. J.K. Rowling has created a variety of characters from numerous backgrounds, and I think there is someone for everyone to relate to throughout the book.
Without going into too much detail on each character, I will just describe a few of the notable ones, such as Howard Mollison, the vastly overweight chair of the council who thinks that his word is gospel in the town. He is desperate to get his son, Miles, onto the council in the wake of Barry’s death, and would rather face up to the town’s problems instead of those at home. Miles’ wife Samantha is against his election the council, as she feels undervalued and struggles with the reality of getting old. She is bitchy to everyone and desperate to recapture her youth, always contemplating surgery to fix her appearance.
Then there are the teenage characters in the book, which are arguably the best-written and where Rowling’s character development excels. One of these was Sukhvinder, the daughter of the local doctor, who has always been outshined by her two older siblings, with her mother paying her little attention. She is harshly bullied at school, and is just looking for a way out of her life. However, the character anyone who reads the book will remember most is Krystal Weedon. Her mother is a heroin addict and a prostitute, trying to stay clean on the methadone programme. She still seems unable to resist the lure of the drugs her dealer offers her, meaning Krystal has to care for her three-year-old brother Robbie alone. Krystal has had a hard life, but Barry was helping her to turn things around with the rowing team, and without him her life seems to be in a downward spiral.
Little Robbie provides a shock for the reader, as he is only three but still wears sagging nappies and looks uncared for and dirty. I won’t give anything away, but the harrowing finale of the book is greatly centred on Krystal’s family and how they have affected the Pagford residents, leaving me shocked at how Rowling had chosen to close the story.
As the publishers, and J.K. herself, have tried to constantly reinforce, this is not a children’s book and definitely shouldn’t be picked up by younger readers. There is strong language throughout, differing degrees of violence and the odd sex scene here and there. However, particularly with the uses of language, I would say that the situations for this adult content are appropriate, and aren’t just thrown in casually.
A world away from Harry Potter, but I still found the book to be well-written and compelling, and similar to everything Rowling writes it is full of moral dilemmas. I loved how she offers up a harsh critique of society’s problems without it feeling too political, as the book faces some of the problems we are currently dealing with in society. It manages to discuss benefits, healthcare, addiction, community spirit and a selection of other issues in a way that is thought provoking and really makes you stop and consider your role in the world. However, not once does Rowling try to push her own views onto the reader, as she leaves the reader to make up their own mind.
I loved this book, and for Rowling’s first foray into the adult fiction market I thought it captured the imagination just as much as her earlier work. The only slight thing that stopped me from giving this book the full five stars was her use of brackets throughout the book. Frequently there is excess description given in brackets, often quite a few paragraphs, which made the information feel like an aside to the reader. Although this does give the reader further background on the characters, I didn’t see the need for the brackets to be used as consistently as they were. I felt that by having this slight problem a five star review wouldn’t be justified, but in terms of the plot and every other aspect this is definitely a five star read.
I have to admit that before starting this book I was worried that it wouldn’t live up my expectations, but I adored this book. It deals with the harsh brutalities of real life dramas, building up a representation of society that really makes you stop and think about the state of affairs in the country. It raises political questions in a way that doesn’t feel like propaganda, and I loved the wealth of different characters created by Rowling across different age groups.
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