Not to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, but The Casual Vacancy begins and ends with death. Both are tragic and troubling and cause much turmoil to spiral out of them. But as J.K. so deftly does, she shows us not all deaths are created equal.
After gaining massive and well-earned popularity from the wonderful Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling has entered headfirst into the world of adult (and yes this is very very adult) fiction with The Casual Vacancy. At the start, small town councilor Barry Fairbrother drops dead in an extremely traumatic fashion. The next day, various factions for various reasons, all vie for his now empty council seat. The stakes are raised since the contentious issue of what to do with the local crime ridden, poverty filled, and colossal financially draining projects is an ongoing concern.
With this backstory, J.K. injects a rather large cast of characters, who are all sorts of different ages, occupations, genders, and attitudes into the story. None are entirely likeable, even the ones we are supposed to root for, and the villainous ones are quite nasty and vitriolic. One person is so physically abusive to his family, it becomes very harrowing to get through those passages. Another is a manipulative psychopath. The most public villain is an immensely obese man who treats the council like his own private kingdom, all must hail his greatness or face subtle machinations.
What passes for heroes in The Casual Vacancy are flawed and petty and slightly disconcerting with their obvious disconnect from their loved ones and reality. The mother of the psychopath makes denial her constant mantra, all while trying to prop her husband out of his mental issues. The teen son of the abusive father plucks out a “plan” to stop and hurt his dad, but what that will actually do, he has no clue. This brings us to the central character of The Casual Vacancy, who along with the ghost of Barry Fairbrother, drives the narrative.
A good chunk of the story features Krystal Weedon, a teen girl from the projects who desperately wants to save her existence. Everyday is an endless parade of poverty, promiscuity, and powerlessness for her. Ideas and concepts of how she can save her family are always upmost on her mind, but each and every one of them is virtually unworkable. That aspect does not register to her, only that she needs hope, and none is forthcoming, so she has to manufacture something, anything, out of thin air.
Krystal is the mouthpiece for J.K., her podium about the spectacular failure of the state to help the downtrodden. She is far from perfect, but all this 15 year old wants is safety and security, not chaos and cruelty. And really, shouldn’t every child this age be most worried about getting a boy to like them or what to do on a Saturday night, not with keeping your mother off heroin or cleaning a foul house.
These issues of responsibilities inhabit every nook and cranny of The Casual Vacancy. Krystal should not be held to account for everything that she has to, but because of a callous, clueless and cavalier society, she is expected to do all this and more. And despite all these pressures and concerns, virtually the entire town views her as a filthy pariah.
J.K. has stated the original title of the book was going to be Responsibility. All along the way, as characters collide and interact, we see the effects of not taking personal responsibility and societal responsibility. Small and big decisions have ripples which touch people who never even know where these tides are coming from. Reactions occur based on incomplete and inaccurate information. And the ones who do have some semblance of power, which grants them even more responsibilities, chronically fail to provide any respite for the truly unfortunate. Howard, the obese and bellicose council leader, rules with an arrogant manner which can be directly linked to Krystal’s fate. His uncaring is evil and unnatural, but supported by so many who blindly follow his hypocrisy.
Barry’s passing in the beginning begets more passing’s at the end. While no obvious way could be found to save the seemingly saintly Mr. Fairbrother, the other deaths could have, and should have, been prevented. Only one character in the end comes to this partial truth, takes responsibility for their failings in the matter, and strives to do better. One out of so many who could have been saviour’s, but instead choose the path of least resistance and continued on with their petty little hate-filled lives.
Will Pagford be a better, more enlightened, place after all the tragedies that transpire? Some hope is shown to glimmer forth from the remnants of the battlefield this town exists in. Some are willing to help their fellow souls help themselves, and make our shared existence better.
To take responsibility.
But only some. Others avert their eyes.
And that, as J.K.’s final line says, is the real tragedy.