The Casual Vacancy is set in Pagford, a fictional British town, where the death of a local councillor leaves a so-called “casual vacancy” on the council, prompting an election.
But be warned, this book is not about a local election.
The issue at stake is whether Pagford should close down its only drug rehab clinic and offload its only housing estate, The Fields, onto another district, Yarvil — finally washing their hands of the estate’s already dispossessed residents.
The story is told from many different points of view, so we get to experience the inner worlds and histories of the small-minded Pagford councillors, their rebellious teenage children and a poverty-stricken family in The Fields.
The wilful ignorance (casual vacancy?) shown by the Pagfordians towards the plight of that family plays out against the shocking backdrop of that family’s life, starkly contrasting the Pagfordians’ petty objections to the estate and clinic with the brutal reality of abject poverty.
Drug addiction, sexual assault, child neglect – just reading about life in The Fields is ugly. Imagine living it. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.
Contrast those experiences with the goings on in Pagford — cruel gossip, teen angst, infidelity, politics — and you get ugliness of a very different kind.
The Casual Vacancy is certainly well-observed and painfully so. And I didn’t start enjoying it until about two-thirds of the way through. It would be wrong if I had, probably.
But by then, I was caught up in the fate of the characters and I had to read on. I wanted the prejudiced Pagfordians to get their comeuppance, but more than that, I wanted something, anything to go right for the people of The Fields.
Rowling has said her characters aren’t based on anyone real. But she must know that’s not true. These characters are based on everyone real. They’re based on all of us.
The Casual Vacancy is simply a damning indictment of our failure to look after our whole community, instead of just looking out for ourselves.
And she wouldn’t have written this book if she didn’t know that — and want to change it.
The obvious parallels between the current refugee crisis, and the events and themes of The Casual Vacancy only made it more disturbing.
I want your feedback. Any thoughts, reaction, advice… Let me know in the comments below!