Monday 16 June 2014

Book review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K.Rowling

I enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy so much that I didn't want it to end. It was like a comfy pair of slippers, a favourite blanket,  a hot cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit. Whenever I wanted to be distracted from the annoyances of life, I would turn to The Casual Vacancy and not be disappointed.

The novel starts with a heart attack. Councillor Barry Fairbrother collapses outside the restaurant where he has taken his wife, Mary, for supper, and, by the time the ambulance arrives, Barry is already dead. And so follows a chain reaction involving a wide cast of residents - posh - middle class - poor - old - middle-aged - young - which has them catapulting into each other's lives in a way few of them would have expected, or, in many cases, wanted.

The setting is the fictional, small, attractive town of Pagford uncomfortably close to the city of Yarvil. Uncomfortable because most of Pagford's residents consider themselves superior to the residents of Yarvil, and in particular to those who live in the large council estate The Fields which is 'perilously' close to Pagford. And it is this irritation that divides those on the Pagford Council. On the pro-Fields side was Barry Fairbrother, who had been brought up in the Fields and was a keen advocate of close links with the estate and in particular supporting the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic ; whereas the anti-Fields (and definitely anti-Bellchapel Addiction Clinic) group is headed by the odious Councillor Howard Mollison, who owns Pagford's delicatessen. With wife Shirley (bitchy and snobby), son
Miles ( weak and smug ), daughter-in-law Samantha ( bored and frustrated ) and business partner Maureen (way too close to Howard as far as Shirley is concerned), they are Pagford's unofficial 'first' family'.

The plot revolves around the fact that with Barry's death there is a vacancy on the council, hence the title. Whoever wins the seat will determine the fate of the Fields and in particular the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic. This clinic is important because one of the many families that Rowling introduces us to is the infamous Weedon clan whose home is a bare, filthy hovel. Mother, Terri, is a heroin addict currently on a methadone programme. She is desperate to keep her toddler son, Robbie with her as is her daughter, Krystal. Krystal is a teenager who at first appears to be a nasty piece of work., but gradually we see that she has a far more complex personality. In her own way, she is far more honest than many of the 'respectable' inhabitants of Pagford. It is easy to feel both disgust and sympathy when we step inside the Weedon's chaotic life. They and the Mollisons are light years away from each other and the other characters fall in between.

Initially, I wanted to describe the novel as a highly sophisticated soap opera, but it's actually far more than that. It's an utterly riveting and highly believable reflection of modern life, its problems, its absurdities, its humour, its tragedies. I felt as if I knew the characters that Rowling has created and I got great pleasure when a number of them got their well-deserved come-comeuppance.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. I am full of admiration for J.K.Rowling's skills as a novelist. She tells a cracking good story in a beautifully crafted way.