On with the review.
In theory, many people worldwide have read J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. None of them happen to be my friends. I’ve tried to talk people into reading it since its publication, but they resolutely go back to Hogwarts or move on to the mystery series that she penned under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, involving Cormoran Strike.
I can honestly say this is a shame, but then again, it falls into the same genre where I keep The Catcher In the Rye. It is a book with a group of anti-heroes that makes you philosophically uncomfortable at times and that, for me, is almost always, a story worth reading.
I have to warn you that this is not for the same audience as Harry Potter. The first jolt is in the writing. This is undeniably a book for the older set and while Harry talked about having a crush that makes a monster in his chest awake, a character gets an erection on the schoolbus in the first few chapters. Samantha, the wife of an influential man, lusts after a member of a boy band that her daughter enjoys. A main character’s mother is known to have turned tricks for heroin and there is one of the most apathetically-described rape scenes ever. The characters say things a lot more graphic than “Merlin’s Beard!” and “Alas! Earwax!” So the first thing you should be aware of is the new culture shock. And none of it is done for the shock value; it’s part of the story.
The book opens from the perspective of the pivotal character, Barry Fairbrother. He’s been hard at work for a deadline and subsequently forgotten his wedding anniversary. Not to worry, he has a romantic dinner planned for his wife at the local golf club. His wife is mollified that he’s taking her out until he suffers a ruptured aneurysm in the carpark and dies before the ambulance can take him to the hospital.
I call him the pivotal character because everything from that point forward is based on his legacy. It’s as though this were the story of how the war against Voldemort went on after Harry died (obviously not what happened, but this is the same author, so I can borrow a what-if). As Mr. Fairbrother was on the parish council, his death causes a casual vacancy in which a replacement has to be selected before an election year.
There is an equal balance of adult and adolescent characters and every one of them has something that makes them an unsympathetic figure. Miles is running in spite of the fact that his father could have shoehorned him into power as head of the council. Parminder was devoted to the dead Mr. Fairbrother and becomes vicious in her attempts to put power in the right hands. Simon wants to win the seat on the council so he can take the bribes that politicians are supposed to get. Among the adolescents, we have Krystal, who is the only one to reliably care for her brother, but who also lets him wander off while she fornicates with a local boy. Sukhvinder is an underperformer who often makes excuses for herself. “Fats” is obsessed with being “authentic,” but is mostly an unrepentant prat. You get the idea.
The person who, morally and philosophically, should have carried on Barry’s legacy, is Colin Wall. He is the one who understands what his old friend was trying to do, but he is a cripplingly nervous person whose variety of OCD convinces him that not only did he have the temptation to act inappropriately, but he actually did so and now everyone is aware of it. This is all in his head, of course, but it’s the thing that strips him of his courage and makes him no more remarkable than the person running so he can live up to the family name or the person hoping that he can be persuaded to vote a certain way.
Every character has their own storyline and the most frustrating thing about the book is that it’s possible to despise and empathize with the players. I love Parminder for wearing a royal blue sarong to her friend’s funeral, but want to slap her for HIPAA violations shouted out during a political debate. Tessa, the wife of Colin, is a stable character who wants to help others as a guidance counselor, but she fails as a go-between for her husband and adopted son, making them each other’s antagonists because of misperceptions that could have been resolved.
Apart from the characters, Rowling explores the effects of bullying at all ages, the influence of homophobia, the consequences of drug abuse, the shortcomings of the foster system, rape culture, adultery and mental illness. In short, the entire book hinges around a very inconsequential election in the grand scheme of things, but it is a masterpiece on the duality of human nature.