[Little, Brown and Company, 503 pages]
J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, focuses on the fictional English town of Pagford and how parish councillor Barry Fairbrother’s death affects the town. In the aftermath of his death, his seat goes up for election. The main issue the town debates is whether they should uphold Fairbrother’s ideals and help out the Fields, the poor neighbourbood on the outskirts of town, and its addiction clinic, or whether they’re going to cast the poor off and close the clinic to save money. As the election continues, Pagford is ultimately a town at war, with the concepts of communal accountability, middle-class prejudices and responsibility as the central themes the town grapples with.
One question that seems to be asked is, should we be taking communal responsibility for the lower-class members of society? While a few characters in the novel clearly see the progress that the clinic is making, and the possibility that the poor can improve their lives, the majority are unwilling to look at the facts, allowing their prejudices to cloud their judgment.
J.K. Rowling successfully managed to shed a sympathetic light on the characters living in the Fields by helping readers understand their side of the story. The central characters of the Fields are Terri Weedon and her daughter Krystal, two characters who are initially difficult to like until you realize how difficult their lives have been. Through Terri’s story, we begin to understand the cycle of abuse she experienced as a child, and the fact that the system and her family has constantly failed her. Where most of the middle-class members of Pagford see drug addiction as a simple matter that drug addicts should easily be able to get over once they decide to, Rowling makes us understand Terri’s journey and the cycle she is struggling to break out of. And Krystal, who Pagford sees as a troublemaker, is really just a child who’s trying to improve her circumstances to the best of her ability.
Although very different from the books that made J.K. Rowling a household name, The Casual Vacancy is better than I expected, and definitely worth the read. As a Harry Potter fan, I anticipated that this novel just wouldn’t be my thing, and for most Harry Potter fans, it might not be. But those interested in adult literature with some depth and the conscious aim to analyze our society and middle-class views towards a lower-class community, would find this book worthwhile. Don’t read this book expecting to get Harry Potter and if you do give this book a chance, accept it as something completely separate to avoid disappointment.