JK Rowling is best known for her Harry Potter series and this is her first foray into adult novels. This novel gives her some space to explore some issues that would not fit as well in her young adult fantasies. There are some similarities with the Harry Potter series, however. First of all, Rowling includes a lot of characters in both books and is adept at tying them all together. Second, the teen characters in The Casual Vacancy seem to be more interesting and better drawn than the adult characters. With that being mentioned, I don’t think that Casual Vacancy was as good as the Harry Potter series, but I did end up enjoying it overall.
The story takes place in Pagford, England a small town near a bigger town called Yarville. In between these two towns is an area known as “The Fields”. This is an area where the less well-to-do live. They are on the poverty line and several are drug addicts and are from broken homes. This is also an area of contention for the Pagford town council. Some like Barry Fairbrother want Pagford to annex the Fields so that the people can get town benefits like a methadone clinic for the heroin addicts. Others like Howard Mollison are against annexing the Fields and they don’t want anything to do with those people. At the beginning of the novel, Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm and there is a casual vacancy or empty seat in the town council. The whole rest of the first half centers on many people’s reactions throughout the town to Fairbrother’s death in the lead up to an election to fill his seat. This part of the novel was kind of boring to me.
Near the middle of the book, a teen named Andrew, tired of getting verbally and physically abused by his father Simon (who is standing for the council seat), hacks the council website’s message boards and creates a post from “The ghost of Barry Fairbrother” saying that Simon Price is a thief who stole a computer and is stealing money from his company after hours. All of this is true, but it also causes Simon to go into a rage beating his wife and sons, but he also loses his job. Two more teens with family problems at home end up hacking the site revealing truths about their family members either on the council or standing for the election. This is where the book started getting lots of fun for me.
One of the other really interesting parts of the book was the focus on Crystal Whedon, who comes from a broken home in the Fields. Her mother is a prostitute and heroin addict with another baby from an abusive relationship. Crystal helps take care of her brother, but she is also a bully at school and totally anti-authority. Her story is both heartbreaking and extremely compelling.
So in the end, I would give this book about 3 stars. It didn’t really start getting good for me until the last half whereas every book of the Harry Potter series was definite page turner for me. It is great that JK Rowling is still writing and I will continue to read any book she publishes in the future.