The Casual Vacancy

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The latest novel by JK Rowling (multi-millionaire author of the Harry Potter series) takes some getting used to, writes reviewer Robert Smith.

For one thing, this is very much written for adults; the book addresses a staggering array of contemporary social issues – racism, rape and class conflict to name a few. In addition, Rowling swears liberally in The Casual Vacancy– perhaps this is unsurprising after a decade of writing fantasy novels for young adults.

As for the setting, the new book takes place in and around the suburban West Country town of Pagford. Through Rowling’s narration, we quickly learn that this idyllic landscape is anything but.

Despite the pretty cottages and the quaint ruined abbey, the cobbled streets of Pagford are rife with thinly-veiled hatred and private misery. Class warfare is practiced openly by the school-children of the town and discreetly by the adults. The Fields, a sink estate on the outskirts of Pagford, is shown to be a contentious issue, and the divided opinions it provokes make up much of the novel’s sub-plot.

The plot itself, revolving around the town’s Parish Council, is seemingly mundane and yet intriguing. In the first few chapters, Pagford and its Council are rocked by the sudden death of Councillor Barry Fairbrother. Generous and well-liked, Fairbrother’s death creates the titular ‘casual vacancy’ on the Council.

Behind closed doors, the various forces of Pagford soon begin devising schemes on how to benefit from the vacancy. Howard Mollison, the Council Chairman, becomes the leader of a group looking to fill the seat with one of their own, with huge repercussions.

The story frequently shifts between the points of view of many of Pagford’s residents, with the omnipresent narrator detailing the entire sordid affair, as well as the characters’ own personal issues, from numerous perspectives.

Despite the differences in tone and subject matter from her previous work, The Casual Vacancy is still recognisable as a JK Rowling book, in that the story being told is endlessly absorbing and well-written.

* Read more in next week’s Buteman, on sale Thursday, November 8.