When I first heard that J.K. Rowling would be writing a novel for adults, I have to admit that I wasn't too keen on the idea. Having grown up with the Harry Potter series, I couldn't imagine how her new 'magic-free' writing would turn out. So I didn't follow any news about the book, and its September 2012 publishing date went quietly by me without me realising it.
In the end, I was given the book as a gift. Sitting down with it one long weekend, I was surprised to find myself finishing it within two and a half days, reminding me of the times I would fly through the pages of the Harry Potter books when they were first released years ago. It's clear that The Casual Vacancy is no Harry Potter - but there's something about Rowling's writing that keeps me turning the pages.
Set in the quaintly picturesque (and fictional) town of Pagford, the hefty-sized novel revolves around the events following up on the death of one Barry Fairbrother, who was a prominent member of the Pagford community. Now that he's dead, there is a casual vacancy on the town council, and conflicts arise as an election approaches to nominate a new member. The council is divided on whether or not to maintain The Fields - a lower-class housing area just outside Pagford - and whoever is eventually elected into Barry's post will determine the fate of many people living in the run-down neightbourhood.
There is no one main character, with the narratives switching from person to person. Sometimes I found it quite confusing, having to go back to read paragraphs where this happened. Rowling had a habit of stuffing lengthy back stories into brackets, which jarred the flow of some parts. The first few chapters were particularly slow, and it wasn't until a quarter-way into the novel that things really started to pick up. Past that point, I was already hooked, looking forward to what the end will bring.
However, I have to marvel at the way she managed to weave all her characters together, with all the traits and personalities of each individual person showing clearly as the story unfolds. They are all very 'human' in a sense - there are no clear 'good' or 'bad' guys (though some can be quite unpleasant) and I'm sure any reader would be able to relate to the characters or be reminded of someone who resembles one. There's a strong theme of politics and how the people at the top care little about the inhabitants of The Fields - Barry Fairbrother it seems was the only one who was truly compassionate about them, and his death set into motion a disastrous turn of events.
The Casual Vacancy is an unusually huge book, especially for its genre, but I did enjoy it. The characters were interesting with their individual sub-stories and I like how Rowling describes her settings. Story-wise, it can get draggy and the ending happened suddenly faster than the pacing of the rest of the book. Even so, reading it was definitely a weekend well-spent.