I like a good challenge. So when everyone around me was expressly telling me to stop stressing and to take a break from my worries, I ordered J K Rowling’s mindfuck of a book, The Casual Vacancy. (I can be very cruel – especially to myself.) Right from the start, Rowling’s first book since she wrapped up the Harry Potter series in 2007, The Casual Vacancy keeps you on the edge of dread. With every turn of the page, you hope for something good, something relieving to happen, but, it does not come. Instead, you are drawn deeper and deeper into an insane world. Like staring at a train-wreck, you cannot move away from these characters, despicable as they are. And Rowling has a motley crew of some of the most hateful people you can ever think of. While in many novels, you look for realism with a hint of a fault in the goody-two-shoes central characters, Rowling’s characters are chock-full of deplorable qualities. You can easily play the game of “Who do I hate the most?” and lose to yourself.
The novel opens with Barry Fairbrother’s death. Barry, probably the nicest guy in the town of Pagford, held the coveted Parish Council seat and his death leaves a “casual vacancy” that one too many of the townsfolk have an eye on. So, like I said, Barry’s the nicest guy. He dies in chapter one. You are then left with the muck of the town. One after the other, Rowling pulls from her bag, the people that inhabit the town of Pagford. Old, young, good-looking, ugly, timid, violent, hopeful, or hopeless – they are all flawed. Many are unlikable and pitiable. But truly, they are also real. Rowling is clearly done with writing fantastical stories here. She seems to be on a mission to reflect some of the worst traits we muggles can have. And she succeeds at it. For a change, it was nice to not fall in love with a character, but wish the worst for him or her. It was nice to deplore someone and feel good about not having these vicious qualities or thoughts in my own mind. Rowling is in great form here too. While her characters are flawed, her writing is flawless. There are many storylines and personalities and she weaves in and out of them with ease. Every character is explored in a profound manner and Rowling is fair in her distribution of awfulness.
The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy read and will weigh on your mind. And if you cannot be bothered with that, you may not want to read the book. But if you can chew and savor the taste of depravity in fiction and leave it there, you will thoroughly enjoy it.