The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Tom Hollander. Little, Brown & Company, 2012. 17 hours, 50 minutes. Gift.

Barry Fairbrother’s sudden death in his early forties leaves residents of the town of Pagford in shock – and eager to capture his seat on the parish council. Barry had supported a local council estate, which we in the United States would call a housing project or “the projects”, known as “the Fields”, and those in Pagford who want to do away with the Fields and the Bellchapel clinic see the open council seat as an opportunity to do so. But poverty is only one issue addressed in Rowling’s first novel for adults and the cast of thirty-four characters experience a range of social issues, including rape, racism, drug addiction, domestic abuse, child abuse, self-harm, and suicide.

If I had known there were thirty-four characters in this novel, I would not have listened to the audiobook version because while Hollander did a great job of narrating the novel, there are some characters whose names and backstories escape me. Others, like the voice of little Robbie saying “want chocolates”, have continued to haunt me long after I finished the audiobook.

Robbie is, after all, a little boy who was victim of circumstances and completely ignored by the members of the parish council and those in Pagford who want to join the council. His mother, Terri Weedon, is a heroin addict and prostitute attempting to rehabilitate at the Bellchapel clinic, and his sister, Krystal Weedon, is a teenager who loves her brother fiercely but is ill-equipped to raise him (and herself) alone. Barry Fairbrother was writing an article about Krystal’s plight in the hopes of garnishing support in Pagford for the Fields before his death, and his wife blames Krystal and the rest of the Fields for causing his death, although Barry died from an aneurism. Following his death and the death of her Nana, Krystal loses all her champions and decides the only way to keep from losing her brother to foster care is to get pregnant by Stuart “Fats” Wall because his parents will undoubtable give her money and the council will assign her a flat in the Fields where she can raise her baby and Robbie without her mother.

Stuart is also best friends with Andrew Price, who secretly hates his father for his abusive behavior and his mother for putting up with it. Simon Price, Andrew’s father, decides to stand for election to the parish council so he can receive bribes, but his candidacy implodes after Andrew posts about the computer his father stole as “The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother” on the parish website. The username is then used by Stuart and Sukhvinder as a tool of revenge towards other members of the council, including Sukhvinder’s mother Parminder, whom Krystal blames for the death of her great-grandmother.

Complicated, no? And yet I managed to keep nearly all the characters straight, although I did have to look up how to spell some of the names, and follow the complexities as the story as Rowling revealed layer after layer of secrets and family drama. And I loved how characters rather than action drove this novel because it allowed me to focus on a piece of Rowling’s writing that I think is rather underappreciated within the Harry Potter series. The novel is a great demonstration of Rowling’s ability to construct multifaceted, intriguing characters – villains and victims, alike – regardless of the genre. The majority of the characters had very distinct voices; I blame the few that didn’t on the fact that Hollander can only change the pitch of his voice so many times.

In a way, I’m glad I don’t have the same love for the Harry Potter series as my friends because most of them paned this book and were unable to finish it. I expected to be the same way yet, to be honest, this is the kind of book I would normally read regardless of who the author is. And I think that allowing the description rather than the name to sway you is best way to approach the book because if you expect magic, you will be severely disappointed. But I, for one, find something magical in the ability of an author to tackle the difficult truths of life in a poignant, moving, and complex way.

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