Date finished: December 12th 2016
I really do love a bit of Rowling. Her Cormoran Strike novels under the pen name of Robert Galbraith have been consistently brilliant and, as part of the Harry Potter generation, the wizarding series was naturally a staple of my young reading. So The Casual Vacancy was the final work of hers I need to get under my belt… Except for books 6 and 7 in the Harry Potter series – I, er, never got round to them, but let’s sweep that admission under the rug.
The novel revolves around the goings-on in the Parish of the small town of Pagford. When councilor Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly dies, a position opens up on the council: a casual vacancy. In the scramble to elect another councilor, the vulnerable underbelly of Pagford is left exposed. As the status of the rundown council estate, The Fields, and the addiction clinic are left hanging in the balance, the residents of Pagford are left plotting against one another as their individual struggles boil over and threaten to have grave consequences for the entire town. Councilors against councilors, parents against children, husbands against wives – everyone’s out for themselves in Pagford.
The Casual Vacancy continues in the tradition of the best State-of-the-Nation novels: the neuroses of a complex cast of characters from all walks of life are laid bare in myriad detail, with a hefty dose of melodrama to fill in the gaps. Rowling is often hilarious, but she also ups the emotional ante in places, allowing us to really connect with the residents of Pagford. If the travails of one citizen bore, then those of another are liable to titillate – it’s a novel with something for everyone, even if some of its horrible characters are a little too realistic for comfort.
The Casual Vacancy cements Rowling’s authority as an accomplished storyteller, able to turn her hand to iconic fantasy, thrilling crime, and comic drama as well as command an ensemble cast of multi-faceted characters. It’s a great addition to the ever-growing catalogue of British State-of-the-Nation novels, and features some timely observations on the divisions in British society. But it’s also an unputdownable take on a gossipy town full of over-the-top characters going about some very inadvisable and secretive acts – and it can be really rather funny. This is a novel that dares to define an era in modern England, and it does it a little too accurately.