Book #27

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils... Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

When I first heard that Rowling was writing a new novel, my excitement was mixed with feelings of trepidation. I am a huge Harry Potter fan and couldn't really believe she could trump this magical saga. When the above blurb was released, I really couldn't see where she was going to impress me. A small town without wizards? A parish council without arguments settled by a wand being pulled out? Surely not.

I have no idea why I was so nervous about this. Rowling has continued to bowl me over for nigh on fifteen years; why did I think she was about to stop now? Well, stop she didn't, this book enthralled me. Even the thought of putting it down at all filled me with an untold fear I haven't felt about a book in a long time. This is magnificent, it's phenomenal, it's all the words you see when you look up AMAZING in a thesaurus. Yes, I am a crazy fangirl, expect nothing less than a review gushing with praise.

The story centres around the lifestyles of a small town community; how their lives intertwine, the differences in social class, the differences in family life, and most of all the impact both truth and lies have on humanity. Rowling has a little bit of everything here: abuse, neglect, rape, prostitution, self-harm, betrayal, politics, social politics, drugs, homosexuality, hope, obsession and even paedophilia. It is quite the little town. But all of these things have been shrouded over; everyone is keeping secrets from everyone else. Rowling guides us around Pagford and stands with us while we probe into the minds of the characters, finding out their deepest secrets and (especially if you are a gossip hound like me) basking in the knowledge gifted. It was nothing other than wonderful; every page was a joy to me.

Barry Fairbrother dies in the first chapter of the novel, and the rest of the pages examine everyone's relationship with the man. He is the be all and end all of every event in the novel; however we are only permitted to meet him for a short few pages. A cruel twist from the very beginning as he was the only character who was portrayed without flaw - a man of kindness and generosity. Everyone else in the novel had every single wart exposed; I wondered if Rowling was commenting here on speaking ill of the dead.

Rowling shows us that even the most perfect-seeming lives have their secrets. She shows us that the most perfect of people sometimes wish they were someone else, and sometimes even pretend to be someone else. She shows us that peoples' lives are like turning over a smooth stone and seeing the horrible insects crawling all over the soil-covered underside of it all. She examines both gritty, realistic life in an impoverished area, and also shows us the small-minded prejudices of the middle class. Her social message is perfect: she doesn't aim to condescend, and romanticises nothing. She plants little nuggets of realisation throughout the entire novel. She is nothing other than a genius in my eyes.

It's not an easy book to read by any stretch of the imagination. It is full of harsh realism and the exact details of human weakness. It has, however, appealed to the kinder side of my heart. I found it very difficult when Rowling put me inside the mind of one of the more awful characters in the book. I was thinking things like, "How can you think that?" "How can you do that to someone?" and all the while I was subconsciously examining my own judgemental habits, and vowing to be a better person. Only a very skilled author can do this to a reader.

I loved the way everyone's lives weaved in and out of each other's beautifully. It is easy to imagine this happening in such a small town, but Rowling executed it brilliantly. It was very British, and very convincing.

What I will say is that Rowling is well-known for leaving her readers bereft of a character or two by the end of her stories. I was left with such a tear-soaked face I looked as though I'd dipped it in the sink. These swift, heartless-feeling moves are relevant and required in the plot. They really made me think, and again assess my own worth as a person.

There was no way I was going to be able to review this with any kind of craft. This review was always going to be another testament to Rowling's skill, and the immovable impression in my head that she is a philosophising prodigy. She's done it again, and I love her for it.