JK Rowling’s Small Town Post-Potter Novel
Jk Rowling makes the world come alive with an enchanting ability to wrap the reader up in the lives of her characters and their surroundings. Despite the setting and characters being incredibly vivid, The Casual Vacancy is slow moving, and confusing. I finally conceded I could not keep the (literally) 20 main characters (most having more than one nickname) straight and had to make a chart to keep in the book fold.
Barry and Mary Fairbrother, Maureen Lowe Miles and Samantha “Sam” Mollison, Lexi Mollison, Howard and Shirley Mollison, Simon “Si” “Si-pi” and Ruth Price, Andrew “Arf” Price, Gaia, Gavin, Kay, Drs. Parminder “Minda” and Vikram Jawanda, Suhkvinder “Sooks” Jawanda, Krystal “Krys” Wheedon, Stuart “Stu” “Fats” Wall, Colin “Cubby” and Tessa Wall, Terri Wheedon, and Robbie Wheedon.
Spoilers: Keep reading for a summary of the story.
The Casual Vacancy is a small town soap-opera. The story follows the Pagford parish council through division sewn by gossip, grudges, and poor judgement. The town’s hero, Barry Fairbrother drops dead of an aneurysm and a fight erupts over who will fill his vacancy on the parish council.
Two issues of enormous consequence are up for a vote and the seat will help swing the decision. Pagford must decide if they’ll allow a low-class pikey community on their outskirts to be annexed in to an expanding neighboring town, Yarvil. In addition, the council must vote on continuing the lease on an old church building to a non-profit methadone recovery clinic. Allowing The Fields to become a part of Yarvil would make Pagford smaller by getting rid of it’s most troublesome residents.
Barry was from the intensely poor area dubbed The Fields, and fought to keep the community in Pagford parish so it’s residents would have access to their superior school system and the free methadone clinic. A group of anti-Fielders sprung up in opposition to Fairbrother’s convictions. The kids from The Fields fought and bullied other students at school, The Field residents spread drugs and lawlessness throughout the town. Those in favor of the annexation argued the pikeys were putting a strain on Pagford’s resources.
Howard Mollison is round, enormous and proud of it. He is in terrible health, already having several medical emergencies. His wife, Shirley is small and neat. She’s very gossipy and lives to spill the next town secret. Howard owns a deli and is soon to open a cafe. Shirley runs the Pagford parish council’s website and Howard is the council's head. This is their greatest accomplishment. They love the council even more than they love their son, Miles. Definitely more so than their daughter, Patricia who they’ve mostly disowned since she “came out”.
Maureen Lowe is Howard’s next hand. She works with him at the Deli and is helping run the new cafe. Shirley thinks Maureen must be in love with Howard and is always putting Maureen under her thumb, to show her who’s boss.
Miles Mollison (Howard and Shirley’s son) is married to Samantha, and they have two daughters. Miles is inattentive and doesn’t show much love or care to Samantha. She, in turn, is having an epic mental breakdown. Miles is running for the empty parish council seat and doesn’t ask her opinion before throwing his hat in the ring. She is screaming for attention but all Miles cares about is sinking roots deeper into this small town she hates. Samantha develops a drinking problem and an obsession with a young boy band member, dolling out several hundos to go see him in concert with her daughter. When that falls through, she instead makes it to second base with a 16 year-old while she’s at a party with her husband. Once she sobers up, she’s proud of it, insisting, “It’s legal.”
Doctors Parminder and Vikrum Jawanda had a pre-arranged marriage. Vikrum, with his Bollywood looks and fabulous smile, is the object of lust for every woman in Pagford. Parminder, who is a passive aggressive control freak, is actually in love with Barry Fairbrother (guy that died) and taking out all of her frustrations on her daughter, Suhkvinder “Sooks” who is the least perfect of her three children. Suhkvinder is relentlessly bullied at school because she’s chubby and has a mustache. Parminder borders on mentally and verbally abusing her youngest daughter, who in turn has taken to cutting herself and throwing up after she eats. Parminder’s friend Kay (a social worker) suspects Parminder doesn’t treat Suhkvinder well, but stays silent.
Tessa and Colin “Cubby” Wall are administrators at the local school. Colin was a good friend of Barry’s (guy that died) and is determined to carry on his work by running for his council seat. Unfortunately, Colin suffers from a particularly debilitating form of OCD, wherein he believes he has always just committed a heinous crime. Colin is largely unable to live a normal life because he is constantly convinced he has murdered someone, or committed pedophilia, or done some other unforgivable act. Tessa and Colin have an adopted son, Stuart “Fats” who is sullen and sulky and plays the victim despite having a great mom and a fairly stable home life. Fats almost single-handedly drives Suhkvinder Jawanda to bulimia with his vicious in-person insults and unrelenting cyber-bullying.
Gavin (attorney who works with Miles) and Kay (aforementioned social worker) have been dating for awhile. She’s from London and moved to Pagford to be closer to Gavin, who is very wishy-washy about their relationship. Gavin is from Pagford but doesn’t like the gossip and competition among the residents. He was Barry Fairbrother’s best friend but thinks he may actually be in love with Mary Fairbrother (Barry’s widow). Kay’s teenage daughter, Gaia hates Gavin. Gaia is best friends with Suhkvinder Jawanda and is able to help prop up Sooks’ delicate self-esteem.
Simon and Ruth Price pretend to live on the hilltop away from town because they’re above the fray. In reality, they must stay in near total seclusion because Simon is a devastating domestic violence offender. He regularly beats his wife and both of his sons. His eldest son, Andrew, is best friends with Fats Wall and in love with Gaia. Simon is running for Barry Fairbrother’s seat on the council because he thinks he can get some sort of side deal or kickback to earn extra cash.
Terri Wheedon is a drug addict and a whore living in the government housing project called, The Fields. In a language straight out of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, the residents of The Fields make business of sex, drugs, and stolen property. Terri is in and out of the free methadone clinic and one more time back on “the game” will see her son (Robbie) and daughter (Krystal) being removed to foster care; this time for good. Krystal is a sweet and confident 16 year-old, but she’s also operates on a short fuse and can erupt violently if provoked. She is developmentally delayed and defensive but she is the type of person Barry Fairbrother was trying so desperately to help. Krystal is charged with raising Robbie because her mother is completely useless. She starts having sex with Fats Wall so she can get pregnant and collect her own government benefits.
The Casual Vacancy revolves around the fight for the Pagford parish council seat. The decisions the town are on the brink of making will have enormous consequences, and it all hangs on who wins the seat. Andrew Price gets upset at his dad after a particularly nasty flogging and hacks into the Pagford parish website. Andrew posts under the name The-_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, outing his dad for receiving stolen goods and taking side jobs after hours with company equipment. Simon is fired and drops out of the election.
Suhkvinder Jawanda is emboldened by this hacker and after a terrible row with her mom, she posts under The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother, and exposes her mother as having been in love with the late council member himself.
Fats Wall, also inspired by the the audacity of the first two posts, lays Colin’s faults bare under the same alias. Colin doesn’t drop out of the race, but the action breaks his already fragile relationship with Fats and there’s no hope of mending it.
At the next council meeting, Parminder Jawanda can’t keep her head together and explodes at Howard Mollison— explaining in detail to the entire council and local press how much his obesity has cost tax-payers compared to how much it costs to treat a patient at the methadone clinic. The Council recommends The Fields be annexed into Yarvil. They forget to vote on the clinic lease.
When election day finally arrives, Miles coasts comfortably to victory over Colin Wall who has yet to return to work and is now sure he has molested hundreds of young girls.
Andrew feels bad for Simon losing his job and shows him how to hack the council website. Simon informs the town: Howard Mollison has been giving his assistant, Maureen Lowe, “private sausage tastings” at the deli for years. Shirley plans to murder Howard, but he has a heart attack just before she can get to poisoning him. Dr. Parminder Jawanda is nearby and summoned to the scene, but refuses to come to his aid.
Fats Wall and Krystal Wheedon meet up for sex. She has her 4 year-old brother, Robbie, along. They leave him on a park bench with some sweeties while they shag in the bushes. Robbie gets bored and wanders off, falling in the river, and drowning. Suhkvinder Jawanda sees Robbie and tries to save him. It’s too late for Robbie but it helps Parminder to be a bit less embarrassed of her daughter.
When Krystal figures out Robbie is dead, she flees the scene, and commits suicide before the cops can get to her.
Howard survives the heart attack initially, but is never released from the hospital. His future is uncertain, but he is resigning his seat on the council even if he pulls through.
Miles forgives Samantha for being a pedophile, and she decides to run for Howard’s empty council seat.
JK Rowling is an artist, a beautiful wordsmith, and she can design a world that I can get lost in for days and weeks. The Casual Vacancy is a story of a different sort, in that it doesn’t end. Possibly because the people it’s written about are meant to be more real, where their lives don’t fit so neatly between the pages. This makes it very authentic, yet somehow deeply unsatisfying as a reader after a 738 page investment. (Large print version.) Nothing was wrapped up by the end of the book except for Krystal and Robbie’s pathetic lives.
Simon is taking his rage-fest on the road, where its certain he‘ll continue to beat the daylights out of his wife and sons. Kay may not be able to get a new job and move, two of her latest case members are now dead. Terri Wheedon will join Krystal and Robbie in the ground soon enough. Shirley was about to murder Howard, weapon in hand, and she may yet follow through. Miles is willing to look the other way at Samantha’s insane indiscretion because she makes a Mollison trifecta on the Pagford parish council. Fats Wall is largely responsible for Robbie Wall’s death and likely faces jail time.
It’s a disappointing non-end to a great story with amazingly developed characters.
Buy my copy here for a steal (it’s not terrible, but it didn’t make my personal library either):
Secret Coran-Stacy is an author, entrepreneur, and artist living the dream as a middle class suburbanite in Central Arkansas. Find out more by visiting www.secretstacy.com