Barry Fairbrother, father, husband, parish councillor, dies very suddenly. His family is still reeling and his body is barely cold when plans are being made about how to fill his seat on the council, a seat that will most likely decide the fate of the local methadone clinic and a housing project, the poorest neighborhood in town, of which Barry had been a staunch defender. But the events that are set in motion after his death don’t limit themselves to communal politics but impact the lives of several members of the community in very different ways.
The Casual Vacancy features a rather big cast of characters and it takes a while until all of them are introduced and the novel is set up so far that things actually get going. But it definitely pays off to power through the slow start.
Rowling is obviously a sharp and clear observer of life in a small city with all its entanglements and interconnectedness, and also its pettiness. The way she weaves those characters together is masterful and yet leaves them all enough room to maneuver so it doesn’t feel forced.
She combines her gift of observation with damning social criticism: in all the power struggle, the people who really have to pay, the people who are seen as nothing more than burdens and annoyances at best, are the ones who are struggling the hardest. It comes as no surprise that things don’t end particularly well, especially not for them.
And yet most characters, as flawed as they are, are very much likeable. And even the ones I thought were simply assholes come fully motivated and with a rich interior life that is rare even in novels with a smaller cast. My particular favorites, though, were Krystal and Sukhvinder, which is particularly remarkable because both are teenage girls and teenage girls usually get a very bad rap, especially when they show emotions – and both are highly emotional, suffering characters. But Rowling doesn’t make them into caricatures, she takes their pain seriously and she describes it so graphically that there is just no way that you don’t feel with them. Yet they are never reduced to their pain, they are much more than just girls to feel sympathy for.
With such well written characters, generally beautiful prose and social criticism, it doesn’t matter one bit that nothing big really happens in the novel (until the very end). As with most of life, most of The Casual Vacancy is made up of small personal experiences that end up as more than the sum of their parts.
Summarizing: Very much recommended.