fiction, review

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s next novel after she took her Harry Potter series to its end. It’s the first publicly known work of hers to dwell outside the world of Hogwarts, and wizards, and magic, and children. Rowling seems to want to get rid of the long-shadowing image of children’s books writer and prove herself to be a versatile author capable of writing any kind of fictional narrative. People appear to have such high expectations, as I understand, and this particular book is said to fail to meet them. However, putting aside people’s general opinion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a great work and I am gladly satisfied with it. It’s a witness to Rowling’s established literary talent for absorbing, observantly, social conditions prevailing around her and putting them into words.

Set in Yarvil, where Pagford—and Fields—are parts of the district, the book shockingly starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its councillors, right in the evening of his wedding anniversary. It leaves one seat vacant in the Pagford Parish Council, beckoning purposeful people to vie for it. Howard Mollison, always aiming for the removal of Fields from Pagford’s official map, needs an ally that he can trust completely and sets his son, Miles Mollison, to run for the local election. This meets a serious challenge as Colin Wall, the local school’s deputy headmaster and a close friend of Fairbrother, tries to fill the dead man’s shoes and makes his dreams come true. Clumsy and anxious as he is, Wall seems to have more support from Fairbrother’s old, loyal ally, Parminder Jawanda, and from the social worker who has much concern for the drug addict living in their area. But the competition doesn’t stop there. Simon Price, a dishonest employee of some local printworks, voluntarily will himself to run in the hope that one day when he gains the seat, or so he sees his future will be, he can take full advantage of his position and make more and more money. As the story progresses, the reader can see quite clearly what motivates each of the candidates, what provides the basis for their politically wicked actions that at some strange point the reader can feel some understanding, though not pretty much approval nor sympathy, toward what they do and how they do it.

The Casual Vacancy has numerous characters without a single leading role. It feels as if the vacant seat left by Barry Fairbrother marks the non-existence of the said role, giving the supporting roles and even some fleeting appearances plenty of space to show up and get their characters under the light. Rowling, as an author, seems to have determined to create characters as natural and human as she can. And that’s what I saw here as I perused each of them through the beguiling narrative. On the outside, judging from a wider scale, Barry Fairbrother looks like a perfect character, kind, funny, fighting for the poor. But once we look at him more closely, from the perspective of his mourning, inwardly disappointed widow, we will find a slightly disappointing man with faults that make his ideal personality seem blurred and questionable. The same naturalness also applies to Fats Wall. Well, it is undeniable that Krystal Weedon is the center of all attention ever since the first part of the book that she seems to drown other teenage characters into shadows, but I found Fats Wall’s character more compelling. He is the epitome of the real teenager, restless, rebellious, obnoxious, careless, reckless, disrespectful, yet inside he is still searching for something, some direction which is very vague before his eyes. What Fats thinks he wants to do is live the real life, the real, harsh life. However, as obnoxious as he is, he’s still nothing compared to Shirley Mollison, the character I hate most. She’s the most hypocritical of all. She likes to be pitied, loved, admired and thought of as pure and an angel. And, what’s worse, she’s willing to do everything to have all those.

All the characterizations in this book show Rowling’s remarkable skill in creating and developing characters, no matter how many they are and despite the absence of the character itself, as is the case of Barry Fairbrother. She’s definitely succeeded in describing each one from other characters’ viewpoints and let the reader decide whether or not the way they see each other is correct. The core idea of the story is, I can say, very interesting and how Rowling executes it is very mouth-gaping as well, but the pace is so draggingly slow that I honestly was bored when I first went into it. It moves like a snail at the beginning, steady at the middle, and then seems to run hell for leather at the last several pages. Very fortunately though, the theme is new to me, and the development of the narrative seems so luxurious. It might be quite simple in some senses, but it’s very rich, like an expensive yet simply cut dress. Rowling always has it in her to provoke conflicts through humans’ deepest, darkest characters. She describes the conflict prevailing in each family forming the society in the book in such great detail. Reading The Casual Vacancy was like being viciously forced to face the bitter, painful reality of life that sometimes I was so unwilling to continue it, but then its appeal won my heart and got me back to it. The ending is pretty cliffhanging, and I’m sure it’s not what the reader wants. Be that as it may, to me it’s just the right ending to conclude the story and Rowling is so smart about it. The plot is unpredictable and strays away from its own long-running path. Rowling’s amazing style of storytelling need not to be questioned anymore, I think, for it’s already there and anybody can see it. What truly fascinates me is her ability to immerse herself in every character and come up with speech so typical of them.

Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a fabulous work of general fiction I always crave for. It has a weakness in its pace, but it doesn’t matter because all other factors can cover it. I really think that this is a great novel of J.K. Rowling, one that you should not feel disappointed about.

Rating: 4/5

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