Book: The Casual Vacancy

Yesterday’s library run was highly successful. Four books from my reserve list were available surprisingly early! A fifth book, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, then leaped off the shelf with its Coca-Cola-esque font, colours and proportions, and nested itself atop my book pile. Would you resist?

The Casual Vacancy
Red sells.

Parish politics, the down-and-out, and all the struggles in-between.
512 pages,
★★★★

Set in Pagford, a sleepy town in south-west England, the novel begins with the shock death of Barry Fairbrother upsetting the village equilibrium. He died suddenly, leaving an empty seat on the parish council (called a “casual vacancy”). Middle-class characters then fight over the empty council seat, engage in online slander, and even argue with their families about it—sometimes violently so—in a petty, village power-struggle. Tension escalates as it trickles down the social ladder to those right at the bottom (Terri and their poor daughter, Krystal). Kay, a social worker, witnesses all sides of this struggle and shows us the most comprehensive perspective of this story’s tragic process.

A whopping 34 characters fill out this book. I had to keep notes on them all, and was soon drawing labelled arrows to keep track of all their ages and the relationships between them. A complex web soon emerged, which I’ve beautified and included below.

Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy
Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy

There is no protagonist. One could argue that Barry Fairbrother is the most influential character, but he dies on page three. Everyone else is of equal importance until the end.

To me, the most interesting character is 16-year-old Krystal. She lives on the local council estate (‘The Fields’) with her 3-year-old brother and their pitiful, heroin-addicted mother. Their story, and their family situation, reminds me of the 2009 film Fish Tank. Krystal’s torn between the desire to improve her home situation by caring for her mother and brother, and the desire to run away and start her life afresh. Her internal conflict ends in tears as she chooses an unfortunate, alternative end to her struggle. The novel ends with her funeral, and village equilibrium is sadly, once again, restored.

The Casual Vacancy trained my ability to keep track of 34 characters. I now feel ready to take on more complex works of fiction. Let this book prime you for the classics. ★★★★

17 thoughts on “Book: The Casual Vacancy

      1. I just found it dull. All the characters seemed to blur to the point where the only differentiating image in my mind were their names. Also found it self-indulgent – i can tell jk rowling is just writing for herself now that she can. good on her i suppose.

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      2. J.K. Rowling is super-rich. Despite that, she wrote a story about heroin-addicted prostitutes, drug-dealing child-rapists and child abuse, which proves she hasn’t lost touch with reality. She could have attempted a modern-day classic along the lines of Anna Karenina or Lord of the Rings, and *that* would have been self-indulgent, but she didn’t. I admire her modesty and her willingness to promote awareness.

        Admittedly, the slow, first half is dull. Page 260 is where the description stops and the action begins: Obbo rapes Krystal, Simon beats up his family, and the village disequilibrium accelerates into chaos.

        If I hadn’t made the character map, I would have given up, too.

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  1. WHAT i had no idea any of that happened! But maybe that’s the problem. I shouldn’t have to reach page “…” to be mesmerised with a story.

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  2. This is on my list. This one one author I’d read without care of some weak one starred review, given how much I loved The Harry Potter series. I’m curious to see for myself if she writes just as well for adults. Bless you for the map, I now know it’ll come in handy! I’ve seen the other charts of yours, a summery of my thoughts? You leave me dumbfounded.

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    1. I haven’t read Harry Potter, so I’m unable to compare. But The Casual Vacancy had me gripped, anyway. The Character Map is quite necessary because she refers to people (deliberately?) ambiguously: first as John, then as “[Betty’s] husband”, then as “Mr. Smith”. Only later do we find out that they’re all the same person.

      Persevere until page 260 with this book. Beyond that, you’ll be hooked.

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  3. I found this while I was reading The Casual Vacancy, and I found it really helpful. However, a few things just bugged me a little.
    1. Niamh and Siobhan aren’t Parminder and Vikram’s children. They are Barry’s twin daughter along with their oldest, Fergus, and youngest, Declan. The Jawanda children are Jaswent, Rajpal, and Sukhvinder.
    2. Now I may be wrong about this, but Samantha never kissed Gavin other than maybe a greeting kiss. She detested Gavin; I doubt she would want to kiss him.
    3. Samantha and Miles have another daughter, Libby.
    4. Shirley and Ruth are friends (or at least work at the hospital together because you never know with Shirley), and I found that to be an important connection that’s not labelled.
    5. This one is more of a question, but how did Simon even indirectly kill Krystal? I just didn’t really see that connection when I was reading, and I was just wondering how you justified that.
    Sorry if I seem rude and critical with all this. It was just one of those things that really bugged me and had to say something! Hahah:)

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    1. Wow! I am so impressed as to what a tenacious reader you are!

      1) I was confused by this. Thank you for clearing it up.
      2) I was aware of this just being a greeting kiss but wanted to imply a scandal on my character map.
      3) Good. I found Libby but didn’t see where she fitted in on the map.
      4) Agreed.
      5) Okay, it was him who threw the computer into the river. Robbin died as a result, and triggered Krystal’s overdose. Admittedly, that was a long shot.

      Thank you for being so detailed in your analysis. I love these kinds of comments! I started reading just over a year ago so my experience in reading fiction is extremely limited. I read only non-fiction until recently. Keeping track of over 30 characters is still something I’m far from perfect at. I’m getting better, though, and making these character maps helps me.

      I’ve found, though, that for some books, like Memoirs of a Geisha, the character maps are too complicated to draw. They just look a mess. These maps are more of a transitional process I’m using while I get used to reading fiction.

      Thank you for reading!

      Sent from my iPod.

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      1. Haha:) thank you! Fiction happens to be the only thing that I read, so I suppose I’ve had practice with it! And I never really thought about the fact that Simon’s computer was the cause of Krystal’s death! That’s a really interesting perspective. When I was reading, I thought the indirect fault fell more to Kay’s boss, who’s name I’ve forgotten, or her co-worker, Mattie. If Kay were allowed to stay with the Weedons or if Mattie were more involved, then Terri wouldn’t have regressed, and Krystal might not have run off with Robbie. He wouldn’t have died, and then she wouldn’t have died.

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      2. Life (and novels) are complicated and can’t be represented completely accurately by arrows on a map. In fact, the only way to represent the novel on paper with 100% accuracy would be to copy the entire novel word-for-word (a futile exercise!)

        Krystal’s death (or any other situation in the book) could warrant an entire essay (or an entire book) of analysis. As The Casual Vacancy slowly becomes more famous, maybe people will do just that.

        Do you have a blog?

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      3. I completely agree. That’s a large reason why I love novels so much and found The Casual Vacancy so intriguing. You know a book is good when you find yourself with the overwhelming urge to talk about it and hear everyone else’s perspective. But no, I don’t have a blog.

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  4. Thanks for posting the character map! We are reading this in my mother’s club…well I actually think I am the only one reading it. I find it a slow read now that I’m in the thick of it; as well as, find myself takin’ on a british-bridget-jones-esq accent from time to time.

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  5. I agree with the initial slowness of the book – it languished on my shelf, bookmarked at page 25 for many moons. I just finished listening to the audio book which was able to keep me interested past those primary character layouts. Wow! Once you start to see the overlaps between the lives of the townspeople, it starts to percolate and then the action really gets going. I cried at the end, for the futility and the “ordinariness” we all crave as humans that blinds us to our ability to reach out and help our fellow humans. I love J.K. Rowling’s imagery and imagination. Also appreciated your character map! I think Simon’s computer actually helped re-unite Sukwinda with her family (she cut her leg on it when she hit the water). Krystal’s death, I believe, was the result of Barry’s absence….the only adult who believed in her.

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