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Social Satire: Casual Vacancy

nurse serif;”>Potterhead Sínead Slattery gets to grips with J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

cialis serif;”>Disguised as a ‘storm in a tea cup’ novel about small-town politics, J. K. Rowling’s first offering since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows surprises with unflinching descriptions of the hardships of modern life.

Barry Fairbrother may die in the first chapter but his ghost looms large throughout the rest of the novel and over the lives of the other characters. Raised in the Fields (housing projects on the edge of town) and now a well-liked parish councillor, it’s Barry’s empty seat on the parish council is the “casual vacancy” of the title.

Someone needs to take his place and Pagford’s finest begin plotting against each other. Whilst voting campaigns get underway, an online moniker “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” starts to reveal tightly guarded secrets about Pagford’s residents causeing chaos and consternation in the town.

There’s also an ongoing turf war of sorts – some people want the Fields to be reassigned to the neighbouring town’s council and thus be rid of its social problems; others are fighting for it to stay. Pagford’s an uncharitable town filled with petty politics and obsessions over appearance and class.

Overflowing with unlikeable characters, it’s the teenagers in the story that really make you care: chain-smoking Andrew, the victim of unrequited love; Stuart “Fats” who believes in “authenticity” even if it means hurting others; self-harming Sukhvinder whose family seems to forget about her; infamous Fields resident Krystal Weedon who is trying to keep her mother teetotal and her little brother out of care. Rowling is back on familiar ground when describing the lives of her young characters while her adults are largely unpleasant and flatly characterised.

The novel can be quite emotional at times, which is expected considering the breath of issues it deals with: drug addiction, self-harm, prostitution, casual sex. Some of the descriptions are a bit vomit-worthy – for example, a discarded condom is described as “glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.” Charming. Rowling herself describes the book as a comic tragedy – I found it more sad than funny.

The Casual Vacancy may in holding the reader’s attention for the majority of the novel but lacks complexity; in terms of storytelling and in characterisation. The characters may be twisted but the plot lacks any twists. It’s a dissection of small-town life, a depressing one at that, but not a particularly exciting novel.

No matter how much they may want to, the town’s residents cannot simply disapparate out of Pagford – magic can’t save you here. That’s the kicker really: there’s no magic.  

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