There was never any way that a book written for adults by J.K. Rowling wasn't going to be one of the most hyped books of the year. Those who grew up reading Harry Potter couldn't wait to see what Rowling could do when she turned her hand to realistic, adult fiction. And I must admit that, having been charmed by Harry myself, I was among those who were eminently curious although I certainly didn't expect there to be anything remotely "Harry-like" about it. A tale set in an eminently English village, focused on the people who live there and their central beliefs, how could it not be good? Only it wasn't great. It was merely okay. And not because it wasn't magical (it wasn't) but because it tried too hard to stay grounded in the mud and mire of reality and ended up being turgidly written and over-the-top in its depiction of that nastiness lurking in the already transparently unkind hearts of our fellow man.
The unexpected and untimely death of benign Pagford village councillor Barry Fairbrother leaves a casual vacancy on the parish council. Not only will his seat be hotly contested but his death will re-energize contentious issues and highlight the stark lines dividing the inhabitants of the parish. The two most divisive issues are whether the Fields, a council estate (the equivalent of the projects for American readers), should remain under the purview of tiny and otherwise seemingly idyllic Pagford or be remanded to the nearby, impersonal city of Yarvil and the fate of the drug addiction clinic housed in a village-owned building. One faction finds the Fields and the clinic a blot on their fair village and an unnecessary drain on public resources and funds. The other faction believes that keeping the council estate and the clinic in the otherwise well-off village with its good education and decent social services gives the inhabitants the chance to break free of the cycle of poverty. And it is over this combustible political and moral question that life in Pagford will be exposed as it really is rather than as the picture postcard it appears to be.
There is an enormous cast of characters in the novel, from the councillors on either side of the issue to their extended families to a family living in the Fields to social services professionals. And the major characters range from teenagers to adults. Interestingly, not a one of the characters is particularly appealing as a human being. Their faults are made glaringly obvious, held up to view, and shown in all their grossly unpleasant glory, making it hard to feel much sympathy for any side of the political battle. And while they are each fighting for their own visions of the future of some idealized Pagford, the plot shows that the village is anything but an ideal. Rowling includes almost every one of society's ills in this state of humankind drama: casual sex, racism, domestic abuse, bullying, classism, heroin abuse, rape, neglect, and suicide. The Pagford of The Casual Vacancy is fully realized as a completely hateful and smugly complacent place and the characters of both political stripes are exposed as self-centered, small people. The problem with the book is not that Rowling can't write decent realistic fiction. She can. The writing itself is generally fine if overdone. The problem with the book is the complete lack of even the smallest glimmer of hope. The Casual Vacancy is an awful lot of pages of unrelenting dismalness and hatred.