This much-anticipated first post-Harry Potter “adult” novel by JK Rowling tells the interwoven stories of multiple characters in the small town of Pagford, England. After a member of the town council dies suddenly and unexpectedly in his early forties, this “casual vacancy,” as such an opening is known in Britain, sets in motion a sequence of events that threaten to tear apart the comfortable lives of many residents of Pagford. Almost immediately upon Barry Fairbrother’s death, albeit somewhat surreptitiously at first, various possible replacement candidates begin their political posturing in anticipation of a critical vote on whether to attempt to “unload” a poor residential development seen as socially embarrassing and a drain on the community’s resources. The positions line up largely divided between the wealthier denizens of the community on one side against those who advocate for the poor (social workers, teachers) on the other, although characterizing the positions as clearly and simply two coherent and unified camps does not do justice to the byzantine complexity of the plot.
As stunningly demonstrated in her Harry Potter books, Rowling’s greatest strength is her exceptionally gifted storytelling ability. On that score she does not disappoint in this book. She deftly weaves the lives of 20 to 30 characters together in complex and interesting ways that keep the reader eagerly turning the page to see what happens next. Particularly effective is Rowling’s portrayal of the hugely debilitating, and ultimately tragic, effects of poverty, social ostracism, and drug addiction on the remnants of one particular poor family. The characters who are better off financially and more capable emotionally are strikingly unsympathetic toward their poorer neighbors, and to Rowling’s credit, she presents the poor family in such a way that it would be hard to honestly like them. Poverty and lost opportunity can make people unpleasant, dishonest, foul-mouthed, and unreliable, and they can lead to people consistently making poor life choices. Although the readers are left uncomfortably wanting to like certain characters to whom society has dealt a bad hand, they find it awkwardly difficult to do so. That uncomfortable reality pervades much of this novel and offers the reader an emotional challenge.
In spite of an intriguing and deftly told story, this novel nonetheless did not entirely succeed for me. The greatest weakness of this book was that virtually all of the characters are rather unpleasant people to spend time with. The several important teenagers are especially irritating and annoying. Most of them are extremely foul-mouthed, completely self-absorbed, and thoroughly and blatantly disrespectful of their peers and parents. When they stupidly and selfishly post some very hurtful anonymous blog posts on the Internet, these messages become important and destructive plot devices. Their actions are interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, all the while just leaving one wanting to shake some sense into them at numerous points.
In many cases their parents are even worse. Colin has serious mental illness issues he chooses to largely ignore at great cost to his family, while Simon is an emotionally and physically abusive bully (and thief!). Terri is an apparently hopeless drug addict in constant danger of losing her children to her addiction. Even one of the relatively wiser characters, Parminder, is surprisingly blind to the gaping needs and cries for help from her middle child. Parents are presented as totally clueless about their children’s needs and lives, and the children give them few opportunities to become more informed.
None of the several marriages in the book is really happy. Partners of the most troubled characters tend to be weak and enabling of their spouses’ antisocial behavior. Others see their spouse largely as a vehicle for their own social advancement.
The most “together” characters tend to be rather shallow and self-absorbed, all in all less interesting and compelling than the more troubled people. The reader misses a noble or even a sympathetic character one can really care about and root for. One readily feels sorry for these characters but does not really identify with them, respect them, or even like them.
Nonetheless, Rowling offers an engrossing cautionary tale of how an unexpected death can unleash a cascade of unfortunate, even tragic, events that snowball into far more than one would have predicted. It is food for thought.
Richard Harris is professor of psychology at K-State and a Manhattan resident.