Sunday, November 25, 2012

Overview of THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling

I was very excited to read J. K. Rowling's first novel since her Harry Potter series, a novel for adults titled THE CASUAL VACANCY. I have read it twice and just love it! This post will provide an overview of the novel.

THE CASUAL VACANCY is set in contemporary England in the fictional rural town of Pagford. A "casual vacancy" opens on the Pagford Parish Council when Barry Fairbrother, a council member, dies suddenly and unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm. Efforts to fill the casual vacancy reveal the dark underbelly of the outwardly idyllic town, as all sorts of hidden tensions surface.

The novel doesn't have a main character, but follows the lives of several characters and families through the campaign and election for the newly vacant Pagford Parish Council seat. In most families, we see two generations (the teenagers and their parents) and sometimes three (the teenagers' grand-parents) and even four (one family has an active great grand-mother).


The novel includes the following themes that I find interesting and even fascinating.

THE "DESERVING" POOR VERSUS THE "UNDESERVING" POOR. A current controversy on the Pagford Parish Council revolves around the Fields, a poor area adjacent to Pagford and within Pagford's jurisdiction. Many in Pagford would like to give up jurisdiction over the Fields to the larger town of Yarvil to the north. Having jurisdiction over the Fields means that Fields children may attend local schools, and Pagford sees many Fields families as the "undeserving" poor, or poor people who are perceived as lazy free-loaders and whose children are perceived as undisciplined trouble-makers. By contrast, the poor within Pagford itself are perceived as the "deserving" poor, who work.

The recently deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother, however, grew up in the Fields, improved his circumstances by dint of industrious effort, and became a contributing member of society in the town of Pagford. Barry Fairbrother's heart was with the Fields and he wanted to extend a helping hand to the poor there so that they, too, might move out of poverty as he had. While the people of Pagford admire Barry Fairbrother and his family (his widow and four children), many see him as an exception to what they perceive as the more common slothfulness of Fields residents.

SOCIAL SERVICES. Another controversy on the Pagford Parish Council revolves around the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic in the Fields. Many in Pagford see this clinic as draining resources from Pagford to be "wasted" on people who cycle through the addiction clinic again and again, only to return each time to their drug addition. Supporters of the clinic point to the people who have been and are being helped there.

We are also invited to notice the strain placed on the health care system by an upstanding Pagford Parish Council member, an opponent of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, who doesn't take proper care of his own health but allows himself to remain morbidly obese. This drains resources from the health system to treat this council member's many health problems, all preventable with lifestyle changes that he refuses to make.

THE SECRETIVENESS WITHIN ABUSIVE FAMILIES. The frightening rages of Simon Price, father of the Price family, are vividly described, as is his teenage son Andrew's complete silence with even his best friend, Stuart "Fats" Wall, about the daily terror within the Price home.

TEEN BULLYING. This deplorable practice and its consequences are explored in detail.

TEENS TAKING ACTIONS WITH SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES FOR OTHERS. This is a fascinating theme found in the novel. Three teenagers, each acting separately, take actions motivated by anger and alienation, which have or potentially have very serious consequences for others.

INTERNET ANONYMITY. The novel shows how the Internet in the hands of a savvy user can be used with complete anonymity.

THE USES OF TALKING. One would think that talking is used to communicate. Rowling shows in exquisite detail how people also talk for other purposes: to stand out as more knowledgeable than others, to cause and savor the shocked reactions of others by being the first to tell unlooked-for news, to take revenge disguised as a solicitous query or a seemingly innocent remark.


I found it worthwhile to read THE CASUAL VACANCY twice. The first time, I was interested in the plot. The second time, knowing what was going to happen, I could savor Rowling's language, her descriptions, her images, and her insights into people's character.

Here is a wonderful example of a surprising and vivid image describing the school career of  Krystal Weedon, a sixteen-year-old from an "undeserving" poor Fields family. On page 58, Rowling writes:

Krystal's slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.

There is also this amazing description of the morbidly obese Pagford Parish Council member Howard Mollison, who owns and runs a popular delicatessen in Pagford. On pages 32-33, Rowling writes:

Howard Mollison . . . was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.


The novel's ending is something of a jolt: unexpected, poignant, and realistic.

My next post will focus on further reflections sparked by reading THE CASUAL VACANCY, specifically reflections about teenagers and their thirst for significance in that in-between stage of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult.