The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

“The Casual Vacancy”


Column by Chase Booth

Chase Booth - Hung Vuong

Reactions to the news that J.K. Rowling was going to publish a book outside of the “Harry Potter” franchise were split into two main camps: those who bemoaned any writing of Rowling’s not dealing with our favorite wizard protagonist and those eager to get their hands on anything written by Rowling’s Midas touch. When I first heard about “The Casual Vacancy,” I fell into the former camp  — initially, at least. After some time, I decided to buckle down and pick up “The Casual Vacancy” and was not only pleasantly surprised but also thoroughly enjoyed returning to her writing in a novel intended for and dealing with adult themes.

“The Casual Vacancy” begins with the unexpected death of small town politician Barry Fairbrother and drama ensues as the locals of Pagford vie with one another for Fairbrother’s now-vacant seat. The upcoming election turns petty conflicts and interpersonal beefs into full-on rivalries and factions. We learn that Barry’s seat is actually a linchpin in the ongoing debate about whether or not to keep “The Fields” in the town of Pagford or join the neighboring town of Yarvil. “The Fields,” home to Pagford’s poorest residents, is the site of debate that divides the town up between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the disenfranchised, the pristine and the unclean. Because Barry Fairbrother was an advocate for keeping “The Fields” in Pagford, his empty seat becomes all the more important to obtain by his opponents who will stop at nothing to remove the eyesore from their otherwise pristine town.

Tensions heat up further as the teenagers, fed up with their home life, create an online forum and post secrets about their parents (who are all running for office) under the pseudonym “The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother.” The secrets aren’t light, either. They range from affairs and interpersonal family drama to criminal charges and even pedophilia. As the town reels from these anonymous revelations, some relationships will never repair as the adults scramble to shut down this website before darker secrets are revealed.

We know from “Harry Potter” that Rowling possesses a masterful understanding of human nature, and “The Casual Vacancy” only verifies that sentiment. Juggling multiple characters within one novel is hard enough but doing that and creating in-depth, unique personalities on par with the depth of some Harry Potter characters is nothing short of praise-worthy. She deftly weaves together complex character storylines without sacrificing clarity. In fact, as the story goes on, the drama and intrigue only increase as we learn more and more about the characters and their intricate web of small town politics.

Readers of “The Casual Vacancy” are also treated to Rowling’s penchant for social commentary. One storyline in particular focuses on young Krystal Weedon, the daughter of a heroin addict who raises her younger brother in “The Fields.” Poor and living in an untenable home situation, Krystal becomes the center of “The Fields” controversy and the town’s political struggles. Rowling also deals with issues like child abuse, self-harm, rape, depression and anxiety in constructive and meaningful ways with multiple characters.

Rowling ingeniously integrates local, individual hardships with macro-level political decision-making. One of her characters, Kay Bawden, is the social worker for Krystal’s family and becomes the voice of reason in all the towns conversations about whether or not to close Bellchapel, Pagford’s only rehabilitation clinic. Without spoiling anything, the residents of Pagford end up having to cope with events resulting from poor decision-making and end up leading to a shocking and sad ending.

What one should not do while reading “The Casual Vacancy” is compare it with “Harry Potter.” Critics of this novel have had too much fun tearing it down with snide remarks like “The Casual Vacancy lacks the magic of Harry Potter” without offering any substantive critiques. It is obvious that a novel about small town muggle politics won’t resemble the magic of Harry Potter.

“The Casual Vacancy” is sure to appeal to everyone at Grinnell where we know all too well how small town/college gossip spreads and what it feels like to have everyone know your business. Especially if you’re itching for more of Rowling’s “magic,” be sure to pick up this engrossing novel.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *