The day I got this book felt like one of the days that a new Harry Potter book came out; my sole purpose on Thursday was to get my hands on The Casual Vacancy and then spend my day reading it.
It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t Harry Potter. Before any one had the chance to read the book, all the talk about it was that it was full of drugs and sex and swearing! As if, as the holiest of holies, the author of Harry Potter isn’t ever allowed to swear. Well J.K. Rowling definitely thumbed her nose at that idea didn’t she?
The Casual Vacancy is the story of the tiny town of Pagford after the death of council member, Barry Fairbrother, leaves a vacancy on the council. Before he died, Barry was fighting for the rights of the Fields, the low-income part of Pagford that the town has been thinking about cutting loose. That way they don’t have to pay for the needs of the estate, including running the addiction clinic.
That’s the story in a nutshell. But there’s obviously a lot more to it. Rowling is as adept as ever at creating a world that you immerse yourself in, characters that you relate to and despise. And while there were some familiar elements to The Casual Vacancy (the book opens with the news of Barry Fairbrother’s death kind of like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone opens with the news of the Boy Who Lived for example), overall I would say that it completely stands on its own.
On the outside, Pagford looks like this idyllic place to live. Kind of like the town in Hot Fuzz, before all the people start dying. But once you scratch the surface of Pagford, you become familiar with all of the feuds and the gossip, the drugs and alcohol, the class warfare that ultimately has the power to destroy everything.
Many parts of it were shocking. Probably because for all these years, Rowling has been associated with magic. How is she so familiar with cutting and heroin use and porn? It doesn’t seem like anyone is happy in the village – not in their marriages, friendships or their jobs. Everyone is just trying to get through their days the best way they know how. It felt like a brutally honest microcosm of modern life in a pretty English village.
I was swept up in the story. Once I got to a certain point (and could keep all the characters straight! There are so many!) I couldn’t stop – I had become invested in the outcome. My boyfriend asked me if I was just determined to like it because I worship Rowling, but that’s not it. It’s one of those stories where everyone is connected to each other, a literary Love Actually. But without a warm and fuzzy and perfect ending.
The ending was probably my favourite part. It was so perfect. So neat but completely devastating. Not to give too much away.
All in all I would say that the anticipation was worth it. I wasn’t disappointed. Its such a clear departure from Hogwarts and Muggles that there’s no reason to compare them, allowing The Casual Vacancy to stand on its own merit.