Daily Archives: 10/31/2012

#43: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I managed to avoid all spoilers about this book.  I refused to read any interviews, book reviews, or any other posts about what people thought.  I didn’t look at any ratings, other than to note that it’s averaging 3.4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The main reason (maybe the only reason) I read this was because J.K. Rowling wrote it.  Unless it showed up on a ton of OMFG YOU GUYS HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!! lists, it wouldn’t have appeared on my radar.  I don’t know how to categorize this type of book.  I guess it’s realistic fiction, and maybe I don’t read much of that.  Looking at this year’s CBR, the only two fiction books like this I see are The English Major by Jim Harrison and  Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler.  Everything else has a twinge of faerie or fantasy or alternate reality, or historical fiction with the author’s own bias.   But this book was written by Rowling, so here we are.

One way a casual vacancy happens is when a current council member dies. The seat must be filled by special election, unless the remaining council members are able to appoint someone through majority.  Our story starts with Barry Fairbrother dying from an aneurysm and creating a casual vacancy.

All the joys of small town politics pour over the pages, heavily laced with small town gossip.  It quickly becomes apparent that there’s going to be a fight and an election will have to be held.  But that’s not what this book is about.

And it’s delightful when you realize this.

Like in many small towns, there is a group of politicians that feel they are always in the right.  They understand what the town needs, where it came from and where it must go.  They often want to preserve the integrity of the town and you get the sense that they are worried about…well… other people.  Outsiders.  They absolutely belong to the NIMBYs.  Things need to be done, of course, but it’s important to take care of those who make a difference.  Why use resources on something that won’t give back?  They will gladly spend money to plant flowers in the middle of town, but to put up a bus stop shelter in a lower income area?  Why, that would be wasteful!  It would be vandalized within a week, so why waste time and money?  Besides, they and their families have lived in this town for generations and there’s never been a bus stop shelter before, so why do these interlopers deserve one?

These people are happy with their power and surround themselves with like-minded thinkers and admirers.  The know how to work the system and do everything they can to make sure people know that they are the important ones in town.  They throw perfect parties.  They intimidate the hell out of other people, and they know it.  And they get a thrill every time it happens.

On the other hand, you have people who also care about the town, but they care about all parts of it.  They recognize that many people don’t fit in to this upper tier.  Perhaps they came out of a lower socioeconomic status themselves.  They believe in investing in people and that money spent on services will help everyone.  Why plant flowers when you can offer scholarships for the poor kids?    Why spend money on people who can spend it on themselves?  Perhaps they are idealistic, but with the right personality, they can fight as hard as the other group.

Add some bad blood to the town’s history, and welcome to Pagford.

Again, you might think that this is a book about politics and power and elections, but it’s really not.  It is about power, and lack of power, but it’s also about secrets and the lives we live behind closed doors.  All it takes is for one little tremor to knock things over.  Barry Fairbrother’s death is far more than a little tremor.

Barry  is solidly in the second group and believes that you give back to where you came from and help up the next generation.  If you found success, it is your responsibility to reach back and teach someone else how to succeed.  When everyone takes a step forward, everyone wins.

The problem is the people who need to take a step forward aren’t very pretty.  Or educated.  Or polite.  They don’t speak properly.  They don’t have the right accents or clothes.  They’re poor.  And frankly, many in town feel that they should be left where they are, or, even better, handed over to the adjoining town.

This is what the election circles around.  Which camp will win and will social services be cut or will the methadone clinic stay open.

But, again, that’s not really what’s going on.

The true story is who people really are and what happens when secrets come out.

Each chapter is told by a different community member, so we get to see all different sides of the town.  From the powerful politicians to the powerless teenagers, everyone is either hiding something or bursting to tell their story.

No one is safe and when messages from The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother start appearing on the council’s webpage, things get ugly.  Publicly ugly.  Gossip is gleefully passed, especially among the upper echelon.  Of course this changes when they realize they are also targets.

The election gets closer and closer, but we don’t see campaigning or back room deals or speeches.  Instead we see the very deepest secrets of town members and what happens when truth is forced out.  Sometimes it happens over a kitchen table and sometimes it happens in public, but truths are revealed and nothing can be the same.

It took me a while to get into this book because town politics both bore and frustrate me.  With the Presidential election happening, I’m about ready to crack.  I didn’t want to get involved with a fictional election, but then I realized what this book was really about.  Once stories started being told, I was in.  I especially enjoyed seeing the same events from different points of view, and I liked that some characters didn’t get a voice at all.  I think Rowling very pointedly did not write from Barry’s widow’s point of view.  Although the story starts with her husband’s death and events happen around her and because of her, this is not her story.  Hers is a tale of mourning, of reconstructing, of building a life for four children and no husband.  We know that tale.  That’s not the one Rowling wanted to write about.

Another thing I liked about the multi-POVs were the different voices.  We have sullen teenagers, exhausted blue collar workers, business owners, social workers, and more. They each have a different view of Pagford and their role in it and I enjoyed seeing the town through the eyes of so many people.

There are times when I think authors use death simply as a plot device to get to the next thing.  Two characters need to reconcile or split up forever, so someone dies.  I hate it.  It’s a cheap trick.  Here however, Rowling uses death to prove a point.  Things do change when people die, but not always in the way you think.  Of course Barry’s widow will be forever changed, but what happens to the people who never even knew him?  How do we view death and why is one person’s passing more important than another’s?  Why is it OK to make some people a hero after they die while others are distasteful and their passing a dirty inevitability?

Truth and death.  Secrets and gossip.  Love, friendship, sex, anger.

Reality is all over these pages and I love how Rowling used a simple political moment to capture the layers of this imaginary town.