JK Rowling’s first non-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, drew mixed reviews upon its publication in 2012. I didn’t read this one right away. In fact, I read her outstanding Robert Galbraith mystery, The Cuckoo’s Calling, before reading The Casual Vacancy.
While I have the greatest admiration for Rowling and I found much to like in this book, I saw the same flaws other reviews have identified. First, let me share what I liked about this book. Set in the fictional UK west country village of Pagford, the story centers on a nasty battle for a council seat following the death of the popular Barry Fairbrother. Pagford’s neighboring city of Yarvil is beset by many of the same ills of any urban area: poverty, crime, drugs, and prostitution.
The class struggle between the smug elites of Pagford, personified by the rotund right-wing leader Howard Mollison, and the champions of the less privileged, a cause Fairbrother took up, provide a clever microcosm for the political battles fought daily in the U.S. and doubtless many other countries.
Rowling dishes up plenty of black humor throughout. The dinner scenes featuring Howard and Shirley Mollison and his son, Miles and his buxom wife, Samantha, who detests the Mollisons, are filled with hilarity. The leaders of Pagford are obsessed with petty gossip and go to great lengths to hide their dirty little secrets. Leave it to their children to pull back the curtain on their indiscretions, using their expertise with the internet and technology.
The central point of contention between the two forces is Howard Mollison’s plan to close a substance abuse clinic and to redraw the village boundaries to jettison a notorious public housing complex to the city of Yarvil. Fairbrother had understood better than anybody the obligation of society to help those who are less fortunate, but his supporters appear outmaneuvered.
Now let me share what I didn’t like. Most of the characters lack depth and, worse, are thoroughly unlikeable. I’m not asking for perfect characters, but these folks really turned me off. I also found the ending more than a bit contrived and it left me with an empty feeling.
That said, there are some terrific scenes and moments in this book. I just wish the ending paid off the premise.