J.K. Rowling’s most recent book, “Casual Vacancy,” bears little resemblance to her immensely popular Harry Potter series. Casual vacancy is a British expression for a vacancy on the local governing council when a member dies in office.
Barry Fairbrother, who fought for the underdog from his seat on the Pagford Parish Council, dies suddenly of an aneurysm at age 40. That opens up his seat for many takers. One aspiring candidate is Miles Mollison, husband to Samantha and son of Howard Mollison, who already is on the council. Miles neglects his wife because he is constantly having meetings and dinner with his meddlesome parents. Samantha doesn’t want him to run because that would mean more contact with her in-laws, who don’t approve of her. Samantha begins an affair in her mind with a teenage rock star.
Another contender is Simon Price, who abuses his wife, Ruth, and their two sons, Andrew and Paul. Andrew secretly seethes and tries to avoid his father’s frequent outbursts.
Colin “Cubby” Wall also eyes the seat. He’s the assistant headmaster of the local high school. Cubby and his wife, Tessa, a guidance counselor at the high school, have an adopted son, Stuart, who is nicknamed Fats. Fats is a disagreeable teenager who smokes, bullies other teens online and starts having sex with the local “bad” girl, Krystal Weedon.
Krystal has had a difficult life. She doesn’t know who her father is and her mother, Terri, lives on public assistance and has been in and out of rehab several times. Krystal helps to take care of her little brother, Robbie, as well as she can. Social workers have warned that if Terri can’t stay clean, Robbie will be taken away for good. The only person who cared about Krystal was Barry Fairbrother, the late council member. He had started a rowing team and made sure Krystal was on it because he knew she needed something positive in her life.
When Simon tells his family he is running for the council spot, in part because he thinks he will get kickbacks, Andrew is horrified. He fears everyone will find out how dysfunctional his family is. Andrew sends an anonymous message to the Pagford Parish Council website and signed it “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother,” saying Simon Price had received stolen goods — which was true. Simon then takes his name off the list of candidates.
Dr. Parminder Jawanda, a local physician, is also on the council. She had sided with Barry on many issues and worried whether the winner would be an ally or an adversary. One of her children, Sukhvinder, is dyslexic, and unlike her siblings, is not at the top of her class. Sukhvinder is secretly cutting herself to deal with online bullying and her parents’ negativity. She has a terrible day when Krystal Weedon accuses her mother of killing Krystal’s grandmother, who was under Dr. Jawanda’s care. Sukhvinder seeks sympathy from her parents but only gets a “Buck up” talk. In anger, Sukhvinder also sends an anonymous letter to the parish council website declaring that Dr. Jawanda doesn’t really care for the needy, had really had been in love with Barry and voted however he voted.
Fats is also fed up with his parents, especially his father. The two have never seen eye to eye. Cubby thinks his wife isn’t stern enough with Fats and that makes for a bad threesome. Fats also sends a message to the Council website. Then, there is the election.
It sometimes seems that the only happy person in what is a lovely little town has died. The adults for the most part set deplorable examples for their children. The children are unhappy and use whatever devices they have to escape or get even. So much unhappiness in a small community is depressing, yet it is hard not to get hooked on the story. That’s a tribute to Rowling’s talent, which was long evident throughout the Harry Potter series.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.