The Casual Vacancy Review
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Every small town has its controversies, its politics, and its secrets. And the town of Pagford is no different. In J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, the central controversy is the fate of a low-income housing project. The Parish Council splits its politics evenly on the topic, save for one man, Barry Fairbrother, who, by the force of his personality, has held the factions at bay. His sudden death in the first pages of the book creates a council vacancy, setting in motion a community-wide war.

The town of Pagford is a complex web, as are so many small towns. People interact with one another through marriage, work, school, and community relationships. Rowling has crafted a world in which each thread of this web is carefully examined. It’s critical to know each adult (18 of them), their job, their spouse or lover, their children, their friends, their kids’ friends, where they lived, where they grew up (in town or in the projects), their character traits, and their secrets—so many secrets. Every piece of this information is critical to the story.

There’s the old saying: “The truth will ultimately find its way out.” When the townspeople begin jockeying for Barry’s vacant council seat, a shocking, stealth form of gossip-sabotage appears, shaking the town leadership to its core. In the end, the town is changed forever, a terrible price is extracted, and unlikely heroes have emerged who bring only the tiniest sliver of hope.

I had mixed feelings about this book, even though I don’t shy away from drama with a social message. First, it’s a difficult read on several levels. Rowling introduces each character (or couple) individually—slowly, meticulously laying the groundwork for the developments to come. Her language and skill in describing these characters is impressive, but this intricate architecture of the work means that she takes up about a third of the novel simply introducing the characters. There are so many of them—and so many details put in play—that it feels a bit like a cross between a Russian novel and a game of Clue. I needed to construct a spreadsheet just to keep track of them all.

Once the story progresses, there’s little action; much of the book is dialogue or interior monologue. This also causes the book to drag—especially since there’s very little humor to lighten or change the pace of the read. Still, I stayed engaged by the steady movement of an intriguing storyline, and, despite its darkness, the book still carries Rowling’s emotional signature.

Finally, know this: it’s not Harry Potter. This is a story with no happy ending. This is Rowling’s testimony about her own experiences while living in the projects. Parts of it are gritty, repulsive, filled with anger and heart-wrenching experiences. The characters—particularly the adults—tend to be drawn largely in black and white. Those who are evil are very evil; most of those who are good are ineffectual. You will find her sense of betrayal in these pages, and you’ll see with your own eyes the awful human consequences that she’s witnessed.

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