J.K. Rowling sets her story in fictional Pagford, a sort of Any Village, U.K., that’s been troubled for decades by the seepage of urban woes—drugs, crime, ignorance, desperation—from the Fields, council housing for the poor.
Barry Fairbrother grew up in the Fields, yet made his way to a moderately successful life in Pagford; he’s even on the parish council. Crucial votes are coming up that might allow Pagford to assign the Fields to the adjacent city of Yarvil—in some citizens’ minds an opportunity to free themselves of the responsibility to provide services such as education and clinics to their neighbors.
Barry is, of course, against such votes. Unfortunately, he’s also dead by page five. His vacancy on the parish council gives the book its title; his death sets in motion the actions of the novel’s many characters as they react to his death with sadness and stratagems, emotional turmoil and dirty tricks.
I marveled at Rowling’s ability to create so many memorable characters in her Harry Potter series; she uses that same skill to great advantage here. This novel is all about character: each individual’s capacity to be kind, to be good, to be humane—sometimes fulfilled, often frustrated. Few of the characters are completely nasty, and none are completely nice. (Not even Barry Fairbrother.) I find myself still thinking about some of these people, and wonder what they might be doing now that the casual vacancy has been filled.
The Casual Vacancy is certainly an achievement, perhaps even a kind of wizardry: Rowling has parlayed her remarkable writing talent into a respectable second act.