Back in September I wrote a post about what JK Rowling was up against, writing her first post-Harry book. Up until recently, due to the fact that, well, I’m NOT a billionaire writer, I hadn’t been able to read it. There was a line on the library wait list as long as the lineup for a Twilight movie opening night midnight screening.
But earlier this month, a copy was finally available for me. I had already downloaded the free sample from Amazon, just to see what was coming, and I was intrigued, if not excited. The basic premise is that Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor in the small village of Pagford, UK, dies suddenly, leaving an empty spot on the council. As the campaign begins to unfold, carefully hidden secrets begin to emerge. That’s it in a sentence, anyway.
When I first posted on Goodreads that I was starting to read it, a friend commented that it was incredibly slow, and the ending was “horrible.” Not exactly effusive praise. But the truth is, Rowling has done almost exactly what she did with Harry Potter: she created a world. Except that the world of The Casual Vacancy is on a much smaller scale: the world of Pagford, like so many small towns and villages, is wrapped up in its own minutiae.
Without magical battles, dragons, two-headed dogs, boys who lived, or Hes Who Must Not Be Named, I can see how this would come across as “slow.” The urgency of the Harry Potter books is certainly not there in The Casual Vacancy. That being said, the pacing matched the story. Writing at a fast clip would have done a real disservice to the mood and setting that Rowling was trying to create.
One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned before in other discussions of the book is the main issue of the town’s election: that of “The Fields” – a housing “estate” which would be known as public housing in North America – and whether or not Pagford’s boundaries will be redrawn so that they will no longer be a part of the village. And this is one of the most heartbreaking parts of the story, and the real heart of things. Everyone in the village has their issues, but when Rowling writes about the lives of those in The Fields, and those who grew up there but then moved on, you can tell that this is an issue close to her heart, and that she speaks from experience. It’s easy to forget that she was not always a billionaire, and in fact lived in a housing estate that could very well have been close to her description of The Fields.
So yes, the book is slow-paced, and truthfully, it took me quite a while to get into it, but I’m glad that I didn’t give up. If you’re looking for another Harry Potter, you will likely be disappointed. If you like Elizabeth George books, this is quite similar, without all those messy murders. If you’re just looking for a book to make you think, this might be the one to pick up.