A Journalist's Archive

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          J.K. Rowling enticed millions of children to love reading through her magical Harry Potter series. Now it’s our turn to fall under her spell, with a wave of her literary wand she invented Pagford, a quaint English town. Then she populated it with characters representing every socio-economic class. Intertwining their actions, Rowling reveals a dysfunctional society, filled with petty, sanctimonious people drowning in contemporary vices. While I became mesmerized by her vivid prose, it suddenly dawned on me, this novel contains a profound message. “The Casual Vacancy” is Rowling’s indictment against modern culture, where appearances matter more than reality and social status trumps compassion.
          Unlike residents in the nearby city of Yarvil, Pagford inhabitants are smugly tethered to a glorious past. A ruined abbey dominates “the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.” The Sweetlove Estate, consisting of a Queen Ann manor house, surrounded by acres of farm and parkland, adds an air of “old money” to the town. Extravagant Victorian homes line the streets, and the town square is bustling with shoppers. It would be picture-perfect if not for “The Fields,” a cluster of run-down council houses where the less fortunate live - including thugs and drug addicts.
          You’ll find no saints in Rowling’s ample supply of characters. In fact, some are hateful creatures with little redeeming social value. But just enough of them are “human,” likeable people attempting to do the right thing, while making missteps along the way. Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, appears to be a decent man although  his wife, Mary, might not agree. He grew up in The Fields, but a private school education and hard work allowed him to move up the social ladder. Nevertheless, much to the chagrin of other board members, he remained a life-long advocate for the downtrodden.
          In the first chapter, 44 year-old Fairbrother drops dead on the pavement in front of his country club, where he and Mary were going to celebrate their 19th Anniversary. Yet he is indeed the protagonist Rowling uses for the foundation of this novel. Five other families figure prominently in “The Casual Vacancy;” with a few bit players thrown in for good measure.
          Meet Howard and Shirley Mollison. Both find it hard to subdue their glee over Fairbrother’s untimely demise. As secretary for the town council, Shirley feels it’s her duty to immediately post the news on the council’s website. Howard, a grossly over-weight delicatessen owner and self-proclaimed mayor of Pagford, puts on a sad face while slicing meat and dishing out pâtés for his customers, but underneath his thinly-veiled grief he’s busy scheming. When his assistant, Maureen, asks who will fill Fairbrother’s seat on the board, Howard explains, “We’ve got ourselves a casual vacancy, Mo, and it could make all the difference.”
          Howard wants to shut down the town’s drug rehabilitation center, calling it “a waste of the taxpayers’ resources.” De-annexing The Fields is a top priority too, sloughing it off onto the Yarvil District Council would finally remove the blight that never belonged in Pagford. With Fairbrother not around to thwart his plans, he can gain control of the board by appointing his son, Miles, to fill the vacated seat.
          Miles, a pompous attorney, is a bit of a momma’s boy who shares his parents’ overblown self-righteousness. His wife Samantha, however, wishes she could move far away from her obnoxious in-laws and drowns her discontent with alcohol as she fantasizes about youthful sexual thrills.
           When Dr. Parminder Jawanda, a council member and Fairbrother’s biggest supporter, enters the store, Maureen appears delighted to deliver the bad news. I believe Rowling uses Dr. Jawanda and her family to represent the immigrant population now firmly rooted in English society. Parminder is the town’s general practitioner, her husband, Vikran, is a cardiac surgeon, and they have three children, Jaswant, Rajpal, and Sukhvinder. The latter will play a pivotal role in the last part of the novel.
          While Miles would love to waltz into Fairbrother’s seat, he’s disappointed to find a few other residents want the job too, forcing the council to hold an election. Among them are Colin (Cubby) Wall and Simon Price. Wall is the deputy headmaster at Winterdown Comprehensive High School, and an ardent admirer of Fairbrother. Colin’s wife, Tessa, is the school’s guidance counselor, and Mary Fairbrother’s friend. Fats Wall, their wise-cracking adopted son, covers his insecurities with one-liners. Neither Tessa nor Fats are enthusiastic about Colin running for the board because they have spent years hiding a deep dark secret – Colin has mental problems.
          Simon Price hears about Fairbrother’s death through his wife, Ruth, a nurse. Together with their sons, Andrew and Paul, they live in the “Hilltop House,” in an isolated spot with a fantastic panoramic view. The location of the house helps to hide the abuse Price subjects his family to behind closed doors. He decides to run for the seat after hearing a rumor that Fairbrother took “backhanders” from contractors. Always on the look-out for easy money, Price throws his hat into the ring.
          In my opinion, Price deserves “the most despicable character award,” although some readers may award that to Terri Weedon. The Weedon family epitomizes all that is hated about “The Fields.” Terri is a single mother, who has already relinquished two of her four children to the state. Her daughter Krystal is a promiscuous, foul-mouthed teenager who skips school regularly. Yet she is the only “adult” in the household, raising her 3 year-old sibling, Robbie, while attempting to keep Terri’s heroin dealer at bay.
          Rowling provides an in-depth study of all of the characters, but excels at revealing the mind-set of the adolescents involved in the story. In fact, her description of their emotional states reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Perhaps that’s because teenage angst hasn’t changed much over the decades.
          Fairbrother was the only person who thought Krystal had the potential to improve her lot in life. After his death, she turns to a predictable method many teenage girls have used over the years to escape a horrendous childhood. But she is not the only discontented teenager. Understandably, all of them have self-esteem issues. This is what gives rise to the “cyber ghost” of Barry Fairbrother, who haunts the council website, with unintended consequences.
          Beware: “The Casual Vacancy” does not have a happy ending, however it is an extremely  thought-provoking novel. Rowling doesn’t sugar coat the harm bullying, substance abuse, and many other insipid behaviors, inflict upon society. This book will generate many hours of discussion around water coolers and in book clubs. High school 11th and 12th grade literature teachers should consider adding it to their assigned reading list too.
          It’s no Harry Potter, but “The Casual Vacancy” is indeed a classic in its own right.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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