I was at first very disappointed by how much I had to try to read “The Casual Vacancy.” I expected to want to devour it in one weekend, like I had done all of the author’s novels (despite their volume). But for the first two thirds of the book, I found myself plodding through only a chapter or two every other night.
I can’t wholeheartedly fault J.K. Rowling for my issues. I have always had a problem with any fiction that largely features a cast of characters that I neither like nor find relatable; the characters can be brilliantly written into a plot of labyrinthine intrigues, but if I don’t like ’em, it’s over. And it took a great while for me to find reasons to be invested in these characters, but once I did the novel became a marathon to the finish.
The book tells of the residents of a small town in England and reminds me a lot of 90’s era Robert Altman. It’s only through reading the connections between characters that the purpose of the novel is revealed, rather than by the actions of those characters. As someone who grew up in a town with a population of approximately 380 people (seriously), I can tell you with no exaggeration that the overseas setting sets no limits as to experience. I knew these characters growing up, and I didn’t really like them then, either. Pagford, just like my home town, is a place where not only does everyone know each other, everyone has very definitive opinions on each other as well. The children in the novel were the first to become sympathetic – at first, I couldn’t really find my reason to care for them. But they quickly grew on me as, just as it seems in real life sometimes, the children were the first to want to rise above their shortcomings. The adults either didn’t realize they were a problem or felt that their own miseries were naught but a cause to share unhappiness and discomfort.
All of this changed in the last third of the book. Loose connections became a game of tight cause and effect, and characters, as they often do in the face of tragedy, came to revelations with their own inadequacies and talked to one another instead of stewing in their own tepid hate. The climax of the book made all of the footwork through the first chapters absolutely worth it.
A note on villains, and perhaps a spoiler, so read with caution: Sometimes a villain stays a “favorite” because we secretly like him. Maybe we identify with him, or maybe we secretly wish we could take away a small part of him into our own lives. Rarely is a villain a “favorite” simply because of his utter lack of sympathetic traits, but Shirley Mollison is exactly that villain for me. She remained despicable to her very last narrative passage, and I absolutely love Rowling for not giving her one hint of a redemption, especially when it would have been so easy to give the character a moment of apologetic insight. Shirley Mollison is a grand villain in non-fantasy literature.