Pagford is no Hogwarts. There are no magical spells or potions in this idyllic fictional village, to fix things in a swish. Real life happens, haphazardly, as usual.
In The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling takes an unflinching look at harsh realities like addiction, abuse, bullying, teen angst and death. And she does this with the deep understanding and compassion of someone who has experienced poverty firsthand.
At one point, living on government benefits as a single mother, Rowling herself had gone ‘as poor as it is possible to go without being homeless‘. In the novel she also lays bare the prejudices and callousness of the privileged citizens of Pagford, who finds it convenient to judge and dismiss people who are unlike them.
As the novel opens, Pagford loses its most loved Coucil member, Barry Fairborther, to a brain aneurysm. His death leaves an empty seat on the council called a casual vacancy. Anyone who wins the seat now can turn the tide in favor of, or against, Fields – a council estate on the border of Pagford, inhabited by impoverished addicts and prostitutes. The lowest of the low.
Smug, respectable Pagfordians like Howard and his wife Shirley are hell-bent on chucking the Fields out of the village’s jurisdiction. What is more, they insist on closing down Bellchapel, the de-addiction clinic. They argue that it is a failure. On the opposing side are the council members who were close to Barry Fairbrother, and fiercely loyal to his vision of uplifting the less fortunate. They want to support both Fields and Bellchapel. .
Meanwhile, down in the Fields live troubled teenager Krystal Weedon with her mother Terri, who is attempting deaddiction for the umpteenth time at Bellchapel, and Robbie, her little brother. Barry Fairbrother could have been her Dumbledore. Unfortunately he is dead. And with him has died Krystal’s hopes of escaping the squalor and darkness of their lives. While the two factions are battling it out on thePagford council, the Weedon family teeter on the brink of damnation .
At one point Howard asks why the poor living in the Fields can’t just try harder. He says, “They are choosing by their own freewill to live the way they live“. In the novel, people like Howard use matching arguments to explain their way out of doing the right thing. They make their petty concerns and prejudices sound legit. Then, in a few tight paragraphs, Rowling gives us a glimpse into Terri’s abysmal past, and it feels like a slap on the face. It dashes any possible consolation of blaming the Weedons’s predicament on Terri’s appalling choices.
Barry Fairbrother who grew up in the Fields had managed to get out and create a successful life for himself, through education and hardwork. But for a lot of people battling unspeakable personal demons, it is not as simple as just deciding to be better. Even the system that has been put in place to support them often lacks compassion and empathy.Throughout the novel, watching the village’s teens grappling with loneliness, abuse and heartaches, we get the feeling that the adults have failed them. I couldn’t help wishing that even the kind and well-intentioned ones, albeit caught up in their own personal woes, would try a little harder for these fragile youngsters.
I did find the plot to be a little contrived, and I had to labour through some parts of the novel. But it is the characterization that blew me away. I felt I know these people from my own life – some bigoted attitudes are universal. And the book also called for an uncomfortable introspection into my own entrenched attitudes.
Reading The Casual Vacancy shifted something inside me the teeniest bit. The next time I was in a discussion about someone who has been struggling with the same troubles for a decade now, instead of jumping the gun to pass judgement, I found myself saying, “Maybe he is trying his best…”. As J. K. Rowling shows us, judgement is easy because it exempts us from doing something. But true compassion and empathy can spur us to do our tiny bit in this world.
Now that it’s raining more than ever
Know that we’ll still have each other
You can stand under my umbrella
You can stand under my umbrella
Read the book, you will understand 🙂
Rating: **** 4 stars
Read The Casual Vacancy for an honest look at the darkness and discontent that seethes beneath the surface of civilized societies, and for some glimpses of hope too. Written by a truly gifted writer. For more magical fantasy, we can always reread Harry Potter.
A 2015 British miniseries based on this novel premiered on BBC One (UK) and HBO (US)
J.K.Rowling being interviewed before the release of The Casual Vacancy: Watch it here