"ElmHill" by Original uploader was TourNorfolk at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons
The casual vacancy was J.K. Rowling's first novel post-Harry Potter, and her only non-HP to be published under her own name. It's as different from the fantasy world of Harry Potter or the sometimes fantastical criminal world of her alter-ego Robert Galbraith as you can imagine. Does it work as well as either of these popular sequences? No, it doesn't; although there's much to be admired in Rowling's look at small-town life in rural England. She examines the growing divide both in wealth and in class that has become increasingly a feature of British life; and does this compassionately and with a great deal of humour. Harry Potter fans will already have seen a touch of this in the dreadful Dursleys, Harry's adopted family, but here Rowling's own take on life in Britain in the twenty-first century is expanded further.

When likeable Parish Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, dies suddenly the apparently peaceful town of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. The "casual vacancy" on the council caused by his death erupts into open warfare as opposing sides of the council chamber vie to put their candidate into pole position for the up-and-coming elections. The council is split along political grounds with the centre of the battle being waged over Pagford's only council estate, the Fields. With potential councillors jockeying for position, the Fields' most notorious family, the Weedons, are about to take a place centre-stage; but are they as black as Fields haters would like to paint them?

It's a decent enough story. There are some great characters, a few larger-than-life villainous types, some strong female characters, a dash of humour, some of it delightfully black, and some great social commentary. Where it falls down is that it's often fairly predictable - there are few of the plot twists here that fans of Harry Potter or Cormoran Strike adore, and although some of the characterisation is excellent, many characters fall into caricature.

The phrase "casual vacancy" left by Fairbrother conceals the enormous loss to his family and friends - without his genial place at the centre of society it soon falls apart. This extends further into wider society as everyone's own lack of care contributes to the growing alienation of the community of the Fields, the rifts in society, and ultimately a catastrophic ending. Here is Donne's "No man is an island" writ across British society.

It was a fun, occasionally thought-provoking read, and although I enjoyed it I wouldn't be in a hurry to read it again. It's not on a par with either Potter or Strike. In fact I suspect, sadly, that if it weren't for the familiar author's name on the cover, Casual Vacancy would soon be forgotten. Which actually would be a shame, it may not be as good as the rest of her output but the rest of Rowling's output is very good indeed, which does set a high bar for comparison. Certainly as a piece of social commentary it's well worth reading.


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