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The Casual Vacancy


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Barry Fairbrother, parish councillor in the fictional west country town of Pagford and local good Samaritan, drops dead when out for dinner on his anniversary. His sudden death creates the titular vacancy on the council, contested by deputy head of the town's school Colin Wall, Miles Mollison, solicitor and son of Barry's arch rival, obese local deli owner Howard, and Simon Price, a manager at the local print works.


Chief item on the agenda of the council is The Fields, an overspill estate for nearby larger town Yarvill. Pagford fancies itself as a rural idyll and wants The Fields and its methadone clinic off its hands. On the other hand, the clinic's closure could spell catastrophe for heroin addicted Terri Weedon, her teenage daughter Krystal and 3 year old son Robbie. Can local GP Parminder and social worker Kay, the latter newly arrived from London thanks to an affair with Miles's legal partner Gavin, save the day?


Under the surface of the supposedly genteel Pagford, animosity rages across a tangle of relationships that feature snobbery, hypocrisy, abuse, bullying, mental illness and rape. All this is blown open when posts start to appear the council's internet forum purportedly written by Barry Fairbrother's ghost. 


So, Hogwarts Pagford most certainly is not. It is almost as if, with her first post-Potter novel, Rowling's ambition was to write something ultra-realistic and, as a formerly penniless single Mum, make some political points, particularly about class. Most of these are made through the kind of social satire that Kate Atkinson and the late Sue Townsend excel in, and this sits sometimes uneasily with the brutality of the abusive Simon and the grimness of life in The Fields. The novel's relatively bleak ending only serves to highlight the contrast.


The result is a decent enough novel that, whilst extremely readable, can sometimes seem uneven. For example, it is perhaps not surprising that Rowling seems more sure footed portraying the lives of Pagford's teenagers than their parents, some of whom seem less well drawn characters than their children.


The Casual Vacancy is, perhaps, a rural counterpart to John Lanchester's Capital, published around the same time, although its brush strokes are much broader.    

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  • 5 months later...

Thanks for the "The novel's relatively bleak ending" --now, I know how it's gonna end :)


But on the brightside, I learned two more names to add to my to-read list: Kate Atkinson, Sue Townsend.


I LOOOOVVVVE, I mean a LOOOOOVVVVVVVe a good satire.. I actually have a Sue Townsend book...I forget the title remember only the authors name..

Now, I'll take a look at it

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I remember posting a review about this book a while ago after it was first published but I'm guessing that it was part of the "lost" stuff as I can't seem to find it anywhere.


I have found a copy of the notes I made of the review I wrote at that time and here it is:


The Casual Vacancy,  I found it impossible to put down. This is a character driven novel that requires a bit of patience and a lot of thought. It is long at 500 pages but I think it needs its length for the many characters to develop. You can't really comment on it until you've read it right to the end. It is nothing like the Harry Potter novels and definitely isn’t for children. This is a gritty realistic novel, and that is what I liked about it, its "warts and all" characterisations of ordinary people.  You need to have patience with the characters, most of whom are not at all likeable at the start of the book and I think that character development is a lot of the point of this book. Some of the characters remained a bit undeveloped but to have gone into every character as deeply would have made the book twice its size.


I felt there was a Dickens like social conscience feel to the book, but to compare J K Rowling to someone as great as Dickens seems a bit wrong but I definitely got that feel about it. On the negative side I thought that it was a bit bitter at times and a little "preachy" but all in all I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It has moral content, in fact the last few chapters of part five are basically the parable of the good Samaritan and in part six some of the characters find a kind of "redemption". Despite its gritty tone and sometimes unsavoury behaviour of the characters and the fact it depicts many of the problems in our society, very vividly and very well, which some might find uncomfortable. I think in a way it is a very uplifting book. For example JK Rowling shows how a single person's contribution to other people's happiness can be so great and shows the knock on effects when that person dies like ripples in a pond. That seems to me more a message of hope than despair, that people can make a difference.

It is a social rant - it has a go at all classes in different ways, I have to say the council estate and the characters living there I found very realistic and unnervingly similar to the estate near where I live. I think it was an interesting departure for her and also very brave in a way as there was no need for her to write again EVER as she made so much money from Harry Potter, but the fact she did write again with all the expectation and hype which was bound to surround another novel from her and for it to be one so far removed from HP, all I can say is good on her!

In conclusion I liked it. It's a powerful book, but I would say it isn't for those who have the attitude “I’m alright Jack” and who ignore the problems in society.

Edited by Apple
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  • 1 year later...

I have just finished this and was sorry that it came to an end, even though its end had been reached. I agree with Gram that the characters (of which there are many) were  better formed in the teenage children than their parents, and one or two adult characters remained 'grey' for me throughout, and I was having to remind myself who they were whenever they featured.

And Apple is spot-on with the Dickensian feel of the story. What happens when the two social classes collide is almost inevitable.

Those were an incredibly intense few pages near the end, especially with the particular characters passing by - the visual impact was tremendous.

I won't be reading this again, but I will definitely not forget it. A great novel. A great story.

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  • 5 months later...

I'm not sure what I expected from this book, but it wasn't this hyper-realistic, bleak and uncompromising novel. As was said above, this is a far cry from Harry Potter. But it was very well done! Not sure I agree that the teenagers were better drawn than the adults. It's just that the adults acted like teenagers and I'm sure we'd all like to think that our professionals and politicians and the matrons of the community would have more maturity. But every character in the book felt very real to me. They were all complex, and every character, including Barry, was shown to embody good and bad in varying measure. And, other than the election itself I didn't see most of the denouement coming.

I was certainly glad for every scrap of redemption and maturity and healing that any of the characters found, particularly Sukhvinder, who was breaking my heart. I thought it was well structured and my feelings for every character

except for Simon, who I loathed from beginning to end; although I actually applaud Rowling for having the courage to leave the horrible home life of the Prices unchanged; as much as I wanted Simon to go down and Arf and Paul to be saved, it was very realistic that that situation would never have a positive resolution

changed throughout the course of the book. It was pacy, compulsively readable, and kept my interest throughout, although it was about a hundred pages too long. Simon's viciousness, Gavin's weaselhood, and Kay's delusory neediness got waaaaay more ink than was needed to establish them.

It seems Rowling doesn't have a very high opinion of humanity in general, and there was very little decent, let alone admirable, parenting to be found. Which is not to say I disagree with her conclusions, or think them unrealistic. People are often at their worst behind closed doors. I am very glad I read this, but it would take a gun to my head to get me to read it again. And I doubt I will ever forget Krystal Weedon, one of the most complex, intriguing, and tragic characters I've ever read.

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