THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
I FEEL SORRY FOR J.K. ROWLING. Reading that sentence, many of you may presume that I feel sorry for her based on this book being bad, but this is not the case. This is why I feel sorry for her: Over a period of 10 years, Rowling wrote and published seven of the best books of the 20th and 21st centuries. Even those who think the books shouldn’t be read by anyone over the age of 12 will admit that they are excellent books for those under the age of twelve. These books, the ‘Harry Potter’ series, sold hundreds of millions of copies and made Rowling one of the bestselling authors in history. I am a massive Potter fan, and so when it was announced in February 2012 that Rowling was publishing her first novel since ‘Deathly Hallows’, and that it would be an ‘adult novel’, as opposed to a book for young children or something even less interesting, I was ecstatic.
I feel sorry for Rowling because when she was forced by her publisher, desperate for some much-needed autumn money, to put the name ‘JK ROWLING’ on the cover of ‘The Casual Vacancy’, rather than a pseudonym, she opened her new book open to pages of criticism from Potter fans around the world, expecting a fantastical adventure novel, who went out and bought the book on September 27, only to discover a, frankly, quite depressing class-war story.
There is a varied enough pallet of characters in the book that everyone reading will be able to relate to at least one, and use that character as a gateway into the seemingly quaint and idyllic town of Pagford. I chose Andrew Price to use as a gateway, not because of his troubled home-life, which I have never personally experienced, but because of his fairly normal daily routine. Most of the other young characters, of a similar age to myself, Fats, Krystal, Suhkvinder, all experience extreme bouts of sex, drugs and self-harm. Andrew smokes fairly regularly, but apart from that, he obeys the rules. I have more in common with that kind of teenager than the rule-brreaking, drug-taking, impregnating kids from The Fields.
Andrew spends the whole duration of the story lusting after Gaia Bawden, daughter of Kay, a social worker, who has recently moved to Pagford from Hackney to live near her boyfriend Gavin. Gavin, a very close friend of Barry Fairbrother, the man whose death at the start of the novel affects every character we meet in one way or another, is in love with Barry’s widow, Mary, but doesn’t fully realise or admit it until the end. Gaia’s beauty is described so well by Rowling that anyone would be in love with her by the end, even the Howard Mollisons of the the world! Howard runs the local supermarket, Mollison and Lowe, with Maureen, the widow of his former business partner. He is married to Shirley, a gossiping, resentful old woman, and throughout the story, he is trying to help his son Miles, Gavin’s legal partner, win the seat on the Parish council left behind by Barry. Miles’ wife, Samantha, is an incredibly miserable woman, who at first seems as terrible as Shirley, but soon becomes far easier to sympathise with, as her lingerie shop (Over The Shoulder Boulder Holders) closes down and her dreams of meeting the sexy, young boyband member she fantasises about turns to dust at the hands of her daughter’s friend’s mother, insisting on taking the girls to the band’s concert. This sequence, where Samantha clearly loses all joy that was contained, possibly hidden, inside of her, brought me to tears, along with several other scenes, which I will discuss later.
Howard, Shirley and Miles have always been opposed to Barry’s opinions about The Fields, his lifelong dream being to end the poverty experienced by the residents of the crumbling council estate, halfway between Pagford and the larger city of Yarvil. Parminder Jawanda, the local GP and mother of the aforementioned Suhkvinder, was one of the few councillors on Barry’s side, and Colin “Cubby” Wall, deputy headmaster of Winterdown School, husband of Tessa, school guidance councillor, and adoptive father of Stuart ‘Fats’, runs for the empty seat, presuming his friends Barry would have wanted him to, despite his lack of experience. Colin suffers from serious OCD and anxiety, and when he becomes one of four victims of incriminating messages posted on the Parish Council website, his panic attacks go into overdrives. He starts to believe he has accidentally molested children, and that he killed Barry by cooking for him the night before his death.
The messages are posted on the website after a substitute computing teacher accidentally reveals information about an SQL injection to a class including Andrew and Suhkvinder. Andrew is the first to post a message, traveling to an internet café in Yarvil and telling the world about his father’s possession of stolen goods, under the username The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, a move that shocks all of Pagford’s residents, especially the website’s administrator, Shirley. Suhkvinder is the next to write on the message board, explaining her mother’s un-proclaimed love for Barry. Fats then writes about Colin abusing children unknowingly, knowing it will put his father into a state of panic and fear.
In my opinion, the best scene in the book, and one of the most heartbreaking chapters of any book I have ever read, is Howard Mollison’s 65th birthday party in the church hall. At the party, Samantha overcomes her frustration at missing the boyband’s concert by drinking so heavily she ends up falling in love with Andrew, whilst Andy’s dream of establishing a closer relationship with Gaia comes to life, as along with Suhkvinder, they drink vodka and laugh at Maureen and Howard’s singing. Fats eventually turns up and kisses Gaia, an act of betrayal which depressed me greatly. When Andrew returns home, he helps his previously abusive, but now far more loving father Simon to post about Howard and Maureen’s affair on the website. This act of friendship towards his father is not a good example of ‘how to make amends with your parent’, but is very touching.
The next morning, Gaia regrets kissing Fats, and gives Andrew her phone number, telling him they will meet up when he family moves to Reading. This was the ending of Andrew’s story I hoped for for the entire novel, and I was overjoyed to read this. I wasn’t overjoyed for long, however.
So far, the only major characters I have failed to talk about are the Weedon family, Krystal, Terri and Robbie. After reading the story of this family, you will never listen to ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna, especially Jay-Z’s opening rap, again without crying. Krystal is 16, and Winterdown’s resident troublemaker. She has a mostly sex-based relationship with Fats, which involves them meeting in quiet locations such as graveyards and trying to make a child, although neither of them knows the other knows they want a child, and they both have very different reasons for wanting one. Krystal decides after being raped by Obbo, a sleazy drug-dealer that spends a lot of time hanging out with Terri (Krystal’s heroin-addict mother, who was abused by her father as a child, and so is desperate for some adult to support her, Obbo being, in her eyes, a good friend), that she wants to have a child and raise them, and her young brother Robbie, in her own house, paid for by Fat’s parents. Fats wants a child to cause his father grief.
The end of the novel sees Krystal leaving Robbie alone on a bench, as she and Fats have sex in a bush, and when Robbie becomes thirsty, he wanders off and drowns in the river. Krystal is so overcome with desperation and sadness that she heads home and overdoses on her mother’s heroin. The double funeral of brother and sister is held in Pagford’s church, and almost all the novel’s characters attend, apart from Howard, who suffers a heart attack the morning after his party, just as Shirley is about to murder him for cheating on her with Maureen, and is confined in hospital, and Colin and Fats, who remain at home.
Andrew sits beside Gaia in the church, and this is the start of a new relationship, which will only be strengthened by her moving back to London, and his moving to Reading.
‘The Casual Vacancy’ made me laugh and cry, and when I finished reading it, I felt a hole in my heart the size of a physical copy of the book itself. I implore you to read this, no matter where you live or who you are, although, considering the massive spoilers I have just written, you won’t feel the need to any more!