Don't pick up The Casual Vacancy expecting to experience anything you've ever felt in J.K. Rowling's previous seven books about Harry Potter. Pagford, the small English town, and its school, Windowne, is not Hogwarts. And none of the teenagers in this new novel by the most-read living author are anything like Harry, Hermione and Ron.
The teenagers in TCV are, however, the most richly described and the most likable characters in this vitriolic novel. The adults are all conniving, spiteful, miserably married or deluded. The only truly good and well-liked adult, Barry Fairweather, dies in the first chapter and haunts the rest of the novel. His goodness serves to reflect the hateful impulses of the rest of the adults. The teenagers have our sympathy and support throughout the book.
I can forgive the teenagers lapses in judgment only because they are hurtful to the parents and other adults who make their lives miserable. Each home in the outwardly charming town of Pagford houses its own terrible secrets and every person is destroyed by those dirty little lies and pretense. Only the ghost of Barry Fairweather (great name!) tells the truth.
The book is also about the smugness of conservatives and the hard reality of the lives of families living in poverty. It’s not an easy book to read. But real life isn’t easy.
I am very impressed with J.K. Rowling for writing this novel. It must have been difficult to depart so resolutely from the audience and the tone of her other novels. But, of course, if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can probably get anything you want published. I recommend this book. Even though it doesn’t necessarily have a “happy” ending, most of the plot line is resolved. Just don’t expect this book to be anything like the J. K. Rowling you’ve ever read before. And be warned: Don’t encourage children under 16 to read this gritty and grimy account of life in a small town.