“Pagford Parish Council was, for its size, an impressive force. Any attempts to cut its budget, annex any of its powers, or absorb it into some newfangled unitary authority had been strenuously and successfully resisted for decades. Of all the local councils, Pagford prided itself on the the most obstreperous, the most vocal, the most independent… Yet this amicably appointed body was currently in a state of civil war. An issue that had been causing fury and resentment in Pagford for sixty-odd years had reached a definitive phase, and factions had rallied behind two charismatic leaders.”
Despite previous, failed attempts to read The Casual Vacancy, I have found myself under its spell for the past few days. It is a gorgeously written novel that really allows Rowling’s mastery of fiction writing to shine. However, I can understand why fans of J.K. Rowling have shied away from the book, especially following her tremendous success with the Harry Potter series. While the book’s writing is undoubtedly among the best I’ve read in years, the story itself is challenging to delve into, both because of its very adult content (very adult: these characters dig down deep and show their very darkest, scariest selves to readers) and the fact that the plot centers around a very dry subject, namely city-level politics and small-town dynamics. After reading Rowling’s writing as Robert Galbraith in the Comoran Strike novels (the three most outstanding murder mystery novels I have ever read http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1l ), I find it is much easier to delve into and appreciate the talent on display in this novel. Readers willing to set aside their potential discomfort for the subject matter will undoubtedly be rewarded with an outstanding novel.
Rowling presents all sides — interior and exterior — of her characters to the reader and, as a result, paints an extraordinary portrait of each of them. She exposes everything, holds nothing back, laying each character bare: their every impure thought is exposed, every deep hatred and long-held jealousy is revealed, but along with these flaws, readers are also shown their heartbreaking vulnerability and life-long struggles. No matter the character, Rowling expertly presents them, down to the tiniest detail. Whether she is narrating the perspective of a self-loathing teen, an desperately unhappy housewife, a shell-shocked widow, or a mentally-ill man losing his grip on reality, Rowling never gives readers any reason to doubt their authenticity; she completely embodies each and every one of them perfectly. It is these character portrayals that make the story soar.
Using these many, varied narrators to paint a portrait of the town of Pagford, England, Rowling is able to get under the sheen of British decorum that each character attempts to present and to expose the simmering race and class tensions that threaten to ignite at any moment. At first small resentments, most centering around local politics and issues surrounding nearby residents who live on government assistance, begin to grow and quickly unravel into full-fledged battles between the town’s residents. No one is willing to relent, nor are they willing to discuss openly the real issues that underlie their fury.
These tensions lead to consequences that change the lives all of the book’s characters, some in large and other in small ways. Readers are left with the clear impression that recent events have left the town scarred but possibly able to redeem itself.
If you are a fan of J.K. Rowling, or simply a fan of wonderful, intelligent writing, you should absolutely read this novel.