J.K. Rowling is a British author best known for her series of young adult books about a young man with magical powers and an implacable enemy. The Casual Vacancy is her first novel written for an adult audience.
In England, as Rowling's beginning headnote explains a casual vacancy is "deemed to occurred: (a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or...on the day of his death...." The story begins when one of Pagford's councillor's drops dead. The main story is the struggle among some residents of this perfectly charming English village to hold back (as they see it) the forces of drugs, crime, and the chaos from the neighboring town and other residents to bring the village into the 21st century and actually deal with the effects of poverty, unemployment, and addiction.
The book has a huge cast of characters--eight families, most with spouses, some with children and there are relationships of one sort or another among almost all the characters. I did not find one of the adult characters sympathetic. The five children in the novel, four teen-agers and a three-year-old, are mostly put upon rather than unpleasant; the adults are mostly small-minded, addled, or vicious. I did finish the book even though I could not care about any of the characters because I wanted to see what finally happened.
Rowling does a couple of things that most writers cannot get away with: changing point of view within a chapter or on a page and inserting flashbacks set off by parentheses. She does this three times in the last 10 pages of the almost 500-page book. For example:
They arrived as the hearses appeared at the top of the road and hurried into the graveyard while the pallbearers were shuffling out onto the pavement.
("Get away from the window," Colin Wall commanded his son.
But Fats, who had to live henceforth with the knowledge of his own cowardice, moved forward, trying to prove that he could, at least, take this . . . )"
For another two paragraphs.
I wonder a couple things: Would Little, Brown have published the book if the author were not J.K. Rowling? And: Did the publisher try to edit the book and Rowling refuse the suggestions or did the editor accept it as is on the theory that Rowling's fans won't know or care how well or how poorly it is written or structured?
It's not a bad book. It does give a picture of contemporary small-town English life that seems to this outsider as deeply felt an accurate. It suggests that the lives of English children can be (are?) nasty, brutish, and (in some cases) short. Married couples, even those living comfortably in idyllic little villages, do not have satisfactory sex lives. I found it an unhappy book about unhappy people.