When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the small English town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly an idyllic city in which everybody knows each other. But what lies beneath the pretty facade is a town at war. The rich are at war with the poor, the teenagers are rebelling against their parents, wives distrustful of their husbands, etc. The empty seat on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen.
For having a rather tumultuous summary, The Casual Vacancy is not really a page-turner. It is dreary and dismal, with nary a light of hope. It’s a full ensemble cast, but I didn’t have any difficulty keeping up with the various storylines. A few of the storylines petered out towards the end, as others gained more momentum. I’m not quite sure if this a negative, because I didn’t really care for the characters whose plot-line ran out of steam.
I enjoyed this book, I enjoyed the characters, and thought this book was more a character study than a plot driven novel. The plot is very subtle, almost non-existent. After Barry Fairbrother dies, everyone with an agenda makes a leap towards the empty council seat. From the pompous to the naive to the corrupt, everyone makes a play for the seat in order to further their best interests, the rest of the town be damned.
This book is a complete 180 from Harry Potter, and I went into it expecting it to be as much. I think, perhaps the biggest difference between the Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter is the blurred line between Good and Evil. It was very clearly drawn out in the HP series, whereas you can’t really tell in the Casual Vacancy. There are definitely some bad guys, but the rest of the characters are just caught up in their lives, the same way we do in our lives. None of the characters are particularly endearing, but I don’t really think they are meant to be. There is no hero in this novel. We make wrong decisions based on instinct and survival, rather than considering the greater good. Rowling uses this characters to discuss a number of adult themes in this novel: drug abuse, domestic abuse, political corruption, moral corruption, bullying, cyber-bullying, the list goes on.
For the most part, I thought the novel was well-paced, although it could have sufficed with about 100 fewer pages and still gotten the point across.