Oct 1, 2012

Holiday House Weekends. 'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling.

It's been a holiday house kind of long weekend.  You know the kind when you drive yourself a few hours out of the city and away from the daily grind to decamp for a few days of blissful nothingness in a place that's the same but different.  Somehow, I managed to attain that feeling of escape and restfulness right here at SSG Manor.

After as much of a sleep in as I could manage with the sun being up so early these days, the mornings have begun with leisurely walks down by the river.

Before returning home to spend the morning pottering around the kitchen planning lunch and dinner.

Easy, slow cooking dishes are my favourite things to cook on long weekends.  Today was spag bol day.  I have a recipe that I loosely base my sauce on to which I add whatever takes my fancy from the fridge and pantry.

There's lots of chopping and grating involved so I lay down some newspaper on the dining table, pull up a chair and get to work.

And when I haven't been cooking, I've been feet up on the sofa reading.  Dressed in my most comfy and aged tracky pants, of course.


And what a read it has been.  If my memory serves me correctly, I finished reading J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' in one day.  All 503 pages of it.

Set in contemporary England, 'The Casual Vacancy' is about life in what appears to be an idyllic town called Pagford. Barry Fairbrother, one of the town's genuine nice guys dies suddenly of a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.  His rapid demise begins in the car park of the local golf club and is witnessed by his wife and a couple of close friends.  Barry was in his forties with teenage children and deep roots in his local community.

Barry leaves behind not only his grieving widow and children but also a number of untied loose ends which cause tensions in a number of facets of the community to boil over with ultimately castrophic results.  Narrated in the third person, the novel pieces together the lives of a diverse range of people whose lives were all somehow linked to his.

Central to the plot and cast of characters are Barry's colleagues on the Pagford local council.  Barry's death results in a 'casual vacancy' on the council and a replacement representative must be elected.  The big issues the council must face include what to do about ongoing financial support of the local methadone program as well as the ongoing tensions about 'The Fields', a somewhat derelict area of housing commission residences that many of the well heeled locals would rather be moved somewhere else.  Over the hill from Pagford is a larger and wealthier town that appears to be shirking its responsibility to The Fields and its motley collection of citizens.

In such a small town, it is inevitable that the lives of the disparate residents of Pagford intertwine with an at times overly familiar and oppressive intensity.  Everyone's business is everyone else's and judgement on others is doled out free of charge as well.  No one is perfect, it's only that some people's failings are more visible than others.  Eventually, though, in this age of the internet, even those who hide their secrets well find them revealed online by the people they least suspect.

The plot develops elements of suspense and mystery as the targets of the online smear campaign postulate about the identity of the person responsible.  Many of the central characters have secrets from their pasts and as these are revealed, empathy is built for even the most unlikable people.

With all of this in mind, the pre-release publicity for this novel that talked of sex, drugs, pornography, abuse and prostitution (but little about the plot) begins to make sense.  Rowling has written a novel of our times and explores some of the relatively taboo subjects of society with empathy and intelligence.  Interestingly, she has done this from the perspective of both adults and teenagers in this novel.  'The Casual Vacancy' has been promoted as a novel for adults but it actually broaches a number of young adult issues in a way I feel that many in this age group could relate to.

J.K. Rowling is a strong writer.  I read the Harry Potter series to with the sole purpose of finding out what happens next (to try and keep pace with the movies) and never really paid much attention to her technique and use of plot devices in these books.  However, 'The Casual Vacancy' with its tighter plot structure, different themes and older intended audience to the Harry Potter series set off her talents to their advantage.

It is inevitable that many of Rowling's readers, including myself, will try to draw comparisons between this present work and her previous novels.  The only similarity that came to my mind was the keen understanding and subsequent portrayal of adolescent themes and issues that Rowling was able to execute.  In 'The Casual Vacancy', the relationship and self identity issues of the younger characters were explored with as much intelligence and sensitivity as for the adults of the novel.  The reverse was also true, the journeys and thoughts of the adults were as vivid and real as their children and students were.  I hope this will not be Rowling's only novel for adults.

It's not an easy book to read in terms of its themes and there were many times that I was glad the sun was shining outside and that I'm in a good place with my own life because what Rowling had to say about modern British society and its perils painted a gloomy and horrendous picture of a post Hogwart's world.


  1. Amazed you finished reading it in one day! sounds like a good book and a lovely way to spend a public holiday :)

  2. Lisa @ Blithe MomentsOctober 2, 2012 at 1:08 PM

    Oh thank you for the review SSG, I'm really looking forward to reading this, although I suspect I will be waiting until Christmas to get the chance. It is on my reading list now.


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