But then, so local legend told, came the sudden darkness that attends the appearance of the wicked fairy. (J. K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy)
Barry Fairbrother dies (of an aneurysm) within the first few pages of J. K. Rowling’s new book The Casual Vacancy. His death will likely not surprise readers, as it is mentioned in the synopsis, but it does surprise the people in the town of Pagford. The book is about the aftermath of his death, and during that aftermath, we see into the minds of various Pagford citizens whose lives interact with one another’s and show some of the most disturbing aspects of life.
This book was released on 27 September 2012, and I finished reading it in early October. I decided that I should write a review, but the idea of doing so presents a certain personally fascinating topic for thought. It should perhaps be clear from my confessed devotion to and frequent writing about the Harry Potter series that my reviewing of any book by J. K. Rowling will present the dilemmas of how to make sure I am being as fair as possible and how to determine what effects my love of Harry Potter is having on my review. This feeling began even before the book was released. I was extremely excited about the release of Vacancy, but also felt a feeling of quiet dread; I felt afraid that I would hate it or that I would be so biased due to my love of Harry Potter that I would not be able to judge the book fairly, considering it better than it actually is (due to my bias in favor of the author) or considering it worse than it actually is (by comparing it to Harry Potter and thereby, inevitably, finding it lacking). I have mentioned before that I think Barry’s death is a metaphorical death for Harry Potter, and I think Vacancy is a book that, because it is the first book by a famous author that is not part of her beloved series, presents fans with the excitement and nervousness of unexplored territory.
The territory, it turns out, is fascinating but uneven in places, sometimes delightfully and sometimes frustratingly. This is a book that takes a while to become enthralling. The book is divided into eight parts, seven of which are numbered One through Seven with a part called (Olden Days) in between Part One and Part Two. Each part begins with a (surprisingly relevant) quote from Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration, Seventh Edition. Part One reads a bit like a prologue that’s meant to give small amounts of information that will be expanded upon later, but at fifty pages long, it’s a bit lengthy for that role and it takes at while for the reader to get settled into the world of this book. The reader is introduced to many characters in quick succession; the purpose of this is to introduce them by showing their reactions to the death of Barry Fairbrother. The beginning sections of the part called (Olden Days), from page 51 to page 62, read more like the actual beginning of the story, after the Part One prologue has ended. This section introduces the reader to the history of the Pagford and its relationship with nearby Yarvil and with the Fields (the council estate just north of Pagford). After this, the remainder of the part titled (Olden Days) and the rest of the book continue with the stories of the various characters, their interactions with each other, and their personal struggles within the larger narrative. The structure of the story is clearly very important, because experiencing the story from the points of view of certain characters during certain events helps to build the different levels of the narrative and gives us insight into various characters’ minds.
The characters in Vacancy range from the fascinating to the boring, from the sympathetically almost-lovable to the thoroughly despicable. It sometimes happens in a story with many points of view that I will find myself looking forward to certain sections moreso than others, and that was the case with this book as well; there were certain characters who were immediately interesting and whose sections I would look forward to reading, and other characters whose sections I found a struggle to get through. Certain characters were better written and more developed than others. It has been commented on by others that Rowling’s teenage character are more sympathetic and interesting than her adult characters — an assessment which I think is partially accurate for this book specifically. The teenagers in this book are all extremely fascinating. Krystal Weedon is, of course, the person whose life story shows the central theme of the story, and she is portrayed in a way which makes the reader cheer for her to overcome the struggles she is faced with and despair when horrors occur in her life. Sukhvinder Jawanda almost immediately became one of my favorite characters soon after she was introduced. Andrew “Arf” Price is extremely sympathetic due to his horrible home life and his struggle to be brave enough to stand up to his abusive father. Gaia Bawden is at first just the loud teenage daughter of one character and the crush of another, but she becomes more interesting as the story goes on, especially in her friendship with Sukhvinder. Some characters, despite being not very likeable, were still interesting to read about. One such character was Stuart “Fats” Wall. Though he is one of the characters I very much disliked, due to his treatment of Suchvinder and sympathetic feelings towards Simon Price, his sections are among the best writing in the book. Not all of the adult characters are beyond redemption, however, and some were among the best characters in the story. Parminder Jawanda, Kay Bawden, Tessa Wall were great to read about; in addition to each of their roles in the story, they were each full-developed as characters in their own rights, in addition to being sympathetic due to at least some of their actions. Parminder’s internal struggle about her motivations for wanting to help the people in the Fields and her reminders to herself, when she has acted in a way she feels ashamed of, that she ought to see the good in everyone make her story fascinating. Her actions which emotionally harm her daughter Sukhvinder make me angry at her, but the fact that she does this unknowingly makes me feel sad for her as well. Kay Bawden is a social worker whose concern for the Weedons makes her an almost-immediately likeable character and I ended up wishing that she would be able to inspire more characters to share her dedication. Tessa Wall is the guidance counselor who wants to help her students, but at the same time, has trouble with her own son at home, especially in dealing with the relationship between her son Stuart Wall and husband Colin Wall. By contrast, some other characters were not as well-developed. Samantha and Shirley Mollison were defined almost entirely by their rivalries and resentments. Colin Wall was a character who I would have liked to know more about, but it’s understandable why his story wasn’t central to the narrative. There were some characters, such as Howard Mollison and Gavin Hughs, who were effective in showing legitimate problem in society (with Howard Mollison’s reasons for being against the Fields sounding extremely similar to arguments put forward by politicians in our own world), but who were not as fascinating and didn’t motivate a desire to know more about them. Overall, Rowling has a talent for creating fascinating characters who take on a life of their own in readers’ imaginations, but that talent was on display here for only some of the characters and not others.
The writing in this book may seem shockingly different from the writing in Rowling’s previous books, due to the profanity and descriptions of sex, but after this briefly surprising impression, there is the recognition of the fact that these aspects are appropriate for this particular story. Reading Rowling without Harry, Ron, and Hermione is initially an odd experience, but once I got settled in, I began to recognize the familiar contours of Rowling’s writing. As uncomfortable a place as Pagford is, and despite the fact that readers likely want to run away from it as quickly as we wanted to run towards Hogwarts, Rowling’s writing is — at least in some places — a welcome place to return to. Though I did not finish reading this novel as quickly as I got through each of the Harry Potter books, it is still compulsively readable after a bit of a slow start.
Vacancy contains important social messages, the most prominent of which is the theme about how we treat others and how a person’s actions can affect others, sometimes even in ways the person is not aware of. This is not a story of a gigantic battle between good and evil, but it is about how little good and bad things done by individual people affect others, and the story of this village is powerful despite the small size of its setting, due to the fact that its story is relevant to so many societies and to humanity in general. There are certain parts of the book which are disturbing reminders of the horrors which occur in the world, bringing to mind the reader’s own personal experiences. While reading the book, there were several times when I felt that sick feeling of recognition, that feeling that an author has so well captured a situation I have been in or a feeling I have experienced that I feel both ill at the reminder and grateful for the understanding. This book illustrates the existence of bullies without the comfort of a story in which the bullied find allies and triumph over those who hurt them. It shows a world in which teenagers cause great harm to their peers without others in the class standing up for the student who is being bullied, in which those who are abused and assaulted find themselves without anyone to turn to for help, and in which adult bullies are in positions of power with the ability to make life much worse for those who are already in desperate circumstances. This is where Rowling’s writing is at its best, as she is able to write passages which make us feel the horror of being in the situations her characters are experiencing. There is great emphasis on both the mundane aspects and horrors of life, with some hints that hope exists but is easily defeated by humanity’s great faults — one of which is our ability to avoid paying attention to and thinking about things which make us uncomfortable. The last line of the book reads, “Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal-blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.” This, I think, a wonderful summation of the social message of the book. Many of the people in the town of Pagford have been ignoring the plight of those who are in less fortunate circumstances than themselves, sometimes even despising people like the Weedons instead of feeling motivated to help them. At the end of the story, though they regret what happened to Robbie Weedon, there is not a great indication that they have realized their mistakes or changed their behavior. To put it another way, this is a book in which the funeral of Barry Fairbrother is one of the most humorous passages.
This book is one of that number which come with automatic audiences; there are a great many Harry Potter fans (myself included) who decided to read this book due to our love of Rowling’s previous books. This is, I suppose, to be expected whenever any book by J. K. Rowling is released. Readers who judge this book against their feelings towards Harry Potter will likely be disappointed. (It would perhaps be too much to ask for a repeat of the series’ success; there are books which take on such a central role in a person’s life that not many others, even those by the same author, will be considered equal.) Readers who are willing to accept that their opinion of J. K. Rowling’s most recent book do not have to be equivalent to their feelings of her previous ones may find a book worth reading. This isn’t a book which will be reread innumerable times by fans looking to return to a beloved story and a place where they feel hope. It is, however, worth reading and considering, given the writing and the subject matter it addresses.
 Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. London: Little, Brown, 2012, (Olden Days), III, p. 55. Print.
 Sharmin, Ani J. Harry Potter is Love. Retrieved on 24 October 2012 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/harry-potter-is-love/.
 The link goes to the posts in the “Harry Potter (i.e. My Life)” category on my blog. These posts can be found at http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/category/harry-potter-i-e-my-life/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. J. K. Rowling’s New Testament “The Casual Vacancy”: My Thoughts on the Announcement and Hopes for the Book. Posted on 13 April 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 10 November 2012 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/rowlings-the-casual-vacancy-announcement/.
 Vacancy, Part Seven, p. 503.