The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling's first foray into fiction for grownups, is nothing if not timely. The story feels especially relevant in a debate about the role of government one that seems to occupy much of the social consciousness these days. Central to the argument in this novel is a decaying subsidized housing unit, The Fields. Because of various zoning laws, The Fields is yoked to the rich and idyllic English town of Pagford even though most of the town's residents believe it should be a part of the big, neighboring city, Yarvil. Most of Pagford's citizens are convinced it is not their responsibility to subsidize welfare benefits for the junkies and drug addicts who reside in The Fields. Pagford doesn't want Fields' kids in their schools, nor do the town's morally upright citizens want to keep paying for a drug rehabilitation clinic that only Fields' residents seem to use.
As the story opens, Barry Fairbrother, the one person on the town council who supported The Fields' cause, drops dead. His death creates a "casual vacancy" which must now be filled by a special election. The anti-Fields faction (which seems to be almost the entire town) views this as a ripe chance to take over the board and eventually influence spending decisions. On the other side of the fence is a small set of people still committed to Barry Fairbrother's cause, who want to see the Fields continue to be a part of Pagford, if for no other reason than out of a sense of loyalty to Fairbrother's memory. The 500+page novel essentially tracks all of these characters' machinations in the lead-up to the special election.
The cast of characters is large and, at first, confusing: the Mollisons, which include Howard Mollison, a deli owner; Maureen, the store manager; Shirley Howard's wife; Miles, their son; and Samantha his wife. There's a general practitioner, Parminder Kaur and her surgeon husband, Vikram (who happens to look like a Bollywood star), both of whom are sympathetic to the cause of The Fields. Then there's Colin Wall and his wife, Tessa, who is a counselor at the high school. These are just a few of the adult residents in town. The story also looks into the lives of their children kids who inexorably get drawn into the grownups' tangled web of relationships.
The novel's small town setting allows Rowling tight control over her characters' lives and The Casual Vacancy can boast of that trademark Rowling stamp: deft plotting. As with any election, there are bound to be skeletons in the closet and dirty laundry thrown about. In this case, pretty much everybody has secrets stashed away. For its size, the story moves along at a rapid clip, unearthing love affairs, betrayals, drugs, rape at times it feels like every human foible gets tossed into the mix and shaken.
The problem with The Casual Vacancy is that the vast cast of characters and all their machinations leave little room for character development. Rowling's characters come across as cardboard cutouts, one-dimensional substitutes for the real thing. Even the situations in the story seem contrived and overly melodramatic there are very few shades of grey here. "Everyone in this town is effing mental," says one of the characters in the book. That might well be true but then plain old vanilla characters usually don't make for readable stories. Even if The Casual Vacancy might not have fully rounded characters or shades of subtlety in its telling, it finally is an entertaining novel.
The Casual Vacancy has a problem in that it has to meet some pretty lofty expectations. In the end the novel emerges as just another standard-issue bestseller. For any other book, that might be more than enough. For a J.K. Rowling book, it probably won't be.
This review was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the July 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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