I am always looking out for new experiences, wherever I may find myself.
Published October 18th 2013
The Casual Vacancy needs to be read with the understanding that it's nothing like Harry Potter. Perhaps it would even be best to imagine it wasn't written by J.K. Rowling. Because if you approach this book expecting anything resembling the wizarding world of that magical schoolboy we're all used to, you will be disappointed.
The story is set firmly in the real world, in the small (but fictional) town of Pagford in England, and follows the lives of some if its citizens in the days and weeks that follow the death of local Councillor Barry Fairbrother. Rowling captures each individual with an impressive realism and provides us with the perspective of everyone from teenage boys to unfulfilled housewives and (quite rare in a book written like this) there was no character I wasn't interested in reading about.
Of course, not all of these individuals are directly interested in the issue of the 'casual vacancy' on the town council, so at times Fairbrother's death and the competition to fill his spot only loosely connects the characters. The novel also takes time to establish any sense of urgency or drama and to actually set up what's at stake should particular candidates win the vacant seat, as two groups battle to instate their favourite.
However, this story is never one about good versus evil, and there's no hero for you to cheer for; it's just the story of an average town (if a little picturesque) full of average people, sorting out some of their small-town problems. Some of the citizens have secrets they'd like to keep hidden, but they're not particularly confronting.
For some readers, the story may not be exciting enough after the whirlwind of magic in the Harry Potter series, though it's by no means bland; there's all sorts of dark themes here, including drug use, rape, poverty and more. However, even without the high stakes, I still found myself often wanting to return to the world and read a bit more.
As a reader, I became completely immersed in this world. I think I got so used to the characters that after a while they started to feel like friends and I'd want to catch up on how their lives were going each day, though I wasn't particularly invested in what actually happened to them. But it's a similar attitude to the one I had reading A Song of Ice and Fire, which was also quite long, though in that case I did always get worried when it looked like another character was about to die.
Of course, Rowling is already as successful as George R.R. Martin. But I think The Casual Vacancy shows there's more to her than Harry Potter. It will be interesting to see what kinds of books she writes in future, particularly as she's already released the crime fiction novel The Cuckoo's Calling, which, though I haven't read it yet, sounds like yet another departure from what we know.