The story begins as Barry Fairbrother, banker and councillor in the English country village of Pagford, drops dead. Suddenly an entire community must deal with his absence: his wife and four children, the council president and deli owner, the local high school’s deputy headmaster, a guidance counselor, social workers, a pair of doctors, a nurse, a junkie’s daughter, and some confused adolescents, to mention but a few. Rowling does a fantastic job of taking the reader through the backstories of what seems to be the entire town of Pagford before getting to the problem at hand: how to fill Councillor Fairbrother’s vacant council seat and deal with the riff-raff who live in a near-by subsidized housing project for the desperately poor.
The Casual Vacancy read like southern gothic literature to me. One of the key components of southern gothic literature is the “grotesque,” and The Casual Vacancy has no shortage of deeply flawed characters and sinister events, all linked together by classism, poverty, and occasional violence. Rowling has even included a “sinister” twelfth-century abbey which rises over the town and she makes liberal use of religious themes throughout the novel, including Councillor Fairbrother as a Christ figure.
I wouldn’t expect to like The Casual Vacancy for the reasons you usually like a book. It doesn’t have a satisfying ending, it doesn’t have likeable characters, it isn’t necessarily good entertainment. The book, however, does showcase the talents of an incredibly gifted writer and comments on unpleasant aspects of society in a way that makes you consider your position on some important issues. You may even be required to examine your own thoughts and behaviors in light of the unpleasant characters in The Casual Vacancy.
Reading this book reminded me of watching “Midnight Cowboy,” a critically acclaimed 1969 movie starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. I suspect this book may eventually achieve the same critcal acclaim.
Book Details: Published by Little, Brown and Company (September 27, 2012), 512 pages, ISBN: 0316228532.