The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling is known the world over now for her Harry Potter series that hasn’t just been turned into movies but also theme parks. She has just published a new novel about as far from the magical world of Potter as is possible.  The Casual Vacancy is not a children’s book, it is not magical, it is not happy, and it does not feel like it was even written by the same author.

Mister Man – my 9 year old – saw it sitting on the coffee table the other day and was excited, asking if he could read it.  No, he cannot.  This is definitely an adult book.  It starts with Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town council in Pagford, getting ready for an anniversary dinner with his wife.  He dies unexpectedly in the parking lot even before they make it inside the restaurant, and the mess begins.

The book is told from the point of view of nearly all the characters taking their turn from others on the town council to children at the local high school and more.  The town is beautiful and idyllic.  It’s small and old and English, with a wonderful school.  It’s exactly the kind of place I’d love to live and raise my children.  Well, I want to live there until I start to hear from the characters.

Barry Fairweather’s death didn’t just leave a hole in the town council.  It left a hole in the town’s fabric.  Unwittingly or not, he held the town together from balancing the town council to providing hope for students who had nothing else going for them and more.  And everyone in the town is miserable.  They all hate their lives for one reason or another, and the decisions they make throughout the book reflect that.  The book is a follows that turmoil, the factions of the town council, parents against their children, husbands against wives, students against teachers.

One issue I had was that there are so many characters in the book it was difficult for them to keep track of them in the beginning.  I found myself constantly flipping back to remember who Miles was or who Shirley was married to.  There were a few characters, such as Krystal, who stands out in sharp relief because she is so singular and different from others in the book, a teen who comes from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make good on her life as best she knows how.  None of the characters is sympathetic.  No one is the least bit likeable, with the possible exception of Robbie Weedon – Krystal’s younger brother who is too young to be anything other than an innocent bystander.  The people in this book aren’t simply flawed – as any good character is – but ugly and miserable.  It makes the book somewhat difficult to read.  As well written as it is, there’s no one to root for as the days pass after Barry Fariweather’s funeral.

I did finish this book, but it was definitely not what I expected.  While I wasn’t looking for Harry Potter Part II from this book, I would have loved to have a character who was a hero for the book.  I would have loved to see a portrait not of misery but of hope.  The book was well-written, but it was challenging to read because the subject matter was depressing.

Michelle does live in a small town with her wee ones, but she is pleased that it doesn’t contain the same strife found in The Casual Vacancy or – if there is – she’s too innocent to see it.  Find out what is going on in her life or town by following along with her blog Honest & Truly! or checking her out on Twitter where she is also @HonestAndTruly.


In the interest of full disclosure, Michelle purchased this book.  There was no compensation involved, and all opinions remain her own.


  1. Carrie says

    I wasn’t really planning to read this book, but have been curious about it. I’m not hearing any love for this book, from anyone who has picked it up. I guess Rowling succeeded in getting away from Potter but I don’t know that her fans particularly enjoy that!

    Thanks for the review.

  2. says

    I’ve been curious too. She’s a wonderful storyteller, and it’s a shame that this one has fallen flat. I wasn’t sure if I cared to read it or not, but a friend gave it to me, so I might give it a try.

    I like character-driven fiction. I wonder how much of our expectation is based on loving HP?
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  3. says

    It was a hard read, whether you put HP out of your mind or not. It was very gritty, much more so than I typically read – and I was surprised about that. The characters were beautifully drawn and very real, but they were so… unhappy! I’d love to hear what others who’ve read it think of the book.
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  4. says

    I wasn’t planning on reading this book but like everyone else I was curious. What struck me when I read your review is that if Fairweather was holding the town together, wasn’t there a chance for inspiration or something good there? Or was his good life in vain? That would seem to add to the depressing nature.Thanks for struggling through it so I won’t have to!

    • says

      You would think so. And I’m not going to give away any spoilers, but there are chances if only the characters would make good decisions. And I hadn’t thought about it as his life having been in vain but looking at the book, for the most part… yes. Sadly.
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  5. says

    I’ve been curious about this one obviously because of the author, but I’ve been holding back until I heard more folks’ opinions. It’s firmly on my “maybe” list. :)

    Also, welcome, Michelle!!
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