After years of writing books for the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling is back with a new, brilliantly-written, insanely moving novel, The Casual Vacancy, which tells the story of a small town constantly at war. Friendships hang on a thread, broken constantly by snips of gossip. There is a carefully drawn line between the rich and the poor, the two sides of Pagford so hostile towards each other it’s a wonder that they’re still a part of the same town. Family members fight amongst each other, close only by blood, and husbands and wives argue, grudgingly bound by the legal means of their marriage. Pagford is a town that does not rest.
The catalyst of the biggest fight of Pagford is the death of a council member Barry Fairbrother, a man who rose to prominence in the town by a rags-to-riches story. Serving as the bridge between the poor, drug-addled residents of the Fields and the wealthy, snobby citizens of the rest of the town, Pagford is torn apart as the rich, lead by First Citizen Howard Mollison, urge to redraw the town borders and have the Fields be a part of nearby Yarvil. Animosities spark in the council itself, as factions form within, one in favor of moving the Fields and another in favor of keeping it. Another consideration is the shutting down of the addiction clinic, Bellchapel, that helps the drug-users overcome their addictions.
If you love tragedy mixed with drama and comedy, I highly suggest reading The Casual Vacancy. However, Rowling leaves no stones unturned when it comes to addressing mature themes in her novel. The Casual Vacancy highlights how class can unfairly separate members of a community– for example, Krystal Weedon is a girl who lives in the Fields with a dirty, drug-addled prostitute of a mother and her baby brother, with simple dreams of growing up with her own family and a clean house. Due to her mother’s reputation, however, she is repeatedly looked down upon and this fuels her frustration and temper towards life.
Politics, and how poisonous it is, is also addressed in Rowling’s novel: slowly, Pagford tears itself to pieces, with family members going behind each others’ backs, friends betraying each other, and hostilities increasing amongst the council members themselves as everyone scrambles for the empty seat. It’s a madhouse in the small town that looks so peaceful on the outside.
Societal issues such as drug use, prostitution, and rape are present as well. The higher class citizens do nothing to help rid this issue within their town– in fact, they are advocating to shut down the addiction clinic and push the responsibilities of taking care of the Fields residents to another town. The citizens of Pagford, whether they are aware of it or not, are all interconnected, yet refuse to support each other. As we grow frustrated at this lack of empathy from the higher class, we must remember that this very problem is prevalent in our own communities. We must remember that the poorer, no matter how bad they might seem, are still human, and that they are a part of our communities as much as we are. We must remember not to judge them until we have heard their stories. Rowling’s brilliant quote in The Casual Vacancy sums up this message:
“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”
I myself thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which speaks a lot to me with its myriad of societal issues. Towards the end, I did tear up– the ending, as the genre (tragicomedy) suggests, is, at most, bittersweet. As the war draws to a close, the members of the town are left to pick up the remnants of memories they have destroyed, and establish new ones.
If you happen to pick up The Casual Vacancy, I urge you to think of how the problems in Pagford may apply to your own community. Like the citizens of Pagford, we are all connected, and we must learn to help each other. Rowling urges us to appreciate the uniqueness of every human being, rich or poor, intelligent or doltish, man or woman, white or other– and together, we can work as a group to create a harmonious and peaceful society. Nobody is perfect– we are not God– but together, we can be.