„The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling – review & spoiler


First of all, I’d like to let you all know that I didn’t read the original, English version of the book, but the Romanian translated version, “Moarte Subită”, roughly translated as “Sudden Death”. It was the best way to translate the title without involving too many words and at the same time, keep our interest alive.
I did this for economical reasons – in Romanian, the book costs about 20$, and the original is almost twice this sum. I promised myself I’d get the English version once I get more money, and set up to read this one, knowing that without any exotic terms like “Quiddich” and “Snape” – you don’t want to know how those terms and others sound in Romanian perspective – the translators couldn’t botch the meaning, expressions or anything else that JK wrote.


As a faithful and connected Potterhead, I’ve heard about this book ever since J.K. Rowling announced its publishing. I read almost all news and even watched some interviews to see what the hype is all about. The perspective to see J.K. write a novel aimed at adults was not something to miss for me, the one who grew up with Harry Potter, right?

Now that I’ve complained about the price, let’s move on to the cover. I don’t know if I shoul like or hate the simplistic concept. My first thought on the matter was: “She is J.K. Rowling, couldn’t she afford a better designer? I mean, a first grader could pull this off! Couldn’t we get a house, a landscape or a church or something?”. My second though was “aw…look at those Gryffindor colors”.
It’s simple and effective when it comes to grabbing the attention on the shelves, but I still think she could have done better. Harry Potter covers were always beautifully illustrated and they sold like warm bread, and her name is a brand now, so why this awful additional attention-seeking cover?

I put this question out of my mind for a while and opened it, starting to read. The first few pages describe Barry Fairbrother (take note of his name) and his relationship with his wife, but also with his work. He feels like he’s neglecting his wife in favor of a newspaper article, so he takes her out to dinner, despite a horrible headache he’s experiencing. Once they arrive at the restaurant, he suddenly dies. It’s a ruptured aneurism, and his brain is invaded by blood. Death occurs in minutes, and there is nothing more to do.

Barry’s sudden death leaves an empty room in the town’s Council, and as the news of his death spreads from neighbor to neighbor, each trying to be the first to announce everyone else, we also learn just why his death affects the entire town. JK generously offers a piece of local history.
This town, called Pagford, used to be a proud, clean little city, with nice landscape, views and perfectly civilized people (as they see themselves). However, a previously abandoned beautiful property with a lot of surrounding land suddenly gains an inheritor, and even though initially the townspeople rejoice thinking how well he’ll manage the property to make Pagford even better, their joy is cut short when he sells a part of that land and Yarvil, the neighbour town buys that land and starts building cheap and bad looking social houses for the “scum of the society”: unemployed, prostitutes, drug users, etc.
Yarvil and Fields (that neighborhood) are a blemish on the lives of Pagfordians, now irritated even more because somehow they got conned into paying a part of the bills for Fields, and because they nice, normal children have to mingle with those hooligans at school – and so the Council is split into two factions:
– one, led by Barry Fairbrother that tries to keep Fields and Bellchapel (the clinic for curing drug addiction), while promoting the good people coming from Fields in general, and especially one Krystal Weedon, a problem child with a good heart despite her violent attitude and language, with a bright future in rowing, should she manage to pursue this sport.
– the other, led by the Mollison family (if you think the Dursleys are bad, wait till you hear them talk). They want Bellchapel closed and Fields in Yarvil. They want their old town back.

Barry’s death leaves an opportunity, because whoever takes his place might just decide Fields’ and Bellchapel’s fate.
As such, soon after Barry’s funeral, elections are organized. However, before that can take place, we must go through about half a book in which we find out about every character, their background story, their problems and relationships.
I didn’t enjoy this first half of the book for many reasons.
First, there were so many characters coming in at once that I had problems remembering who was who. That was also because I didn’t have the occasion to read it very often.
The language and the families seem to come out of Fox News – we have drug addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, rape and neglected minors in Fields, but the situation in Yarvil isn’t that much better! Child abuse – fathers hitting their sons, loud sex happening a room away from a teen girl, drinking and drug use, violence and dirty language (I might actually begin to appreciate my sister and her cussing after reading this), made even more creative in Romanian – just because the translator could. *snickers*

All the time while reading this, I thought to myself “if JK Rowling hadn’t written this, I could drop it. But I want to finish it because despite all this, she is an amazing writer and the gross details just make this more…I don’t know, realistic. But not in my reality. It’s really scary, this thing. It’s sad to think it might be true, that a small town in England somewhere could hide such disgusting people”.

Thankfully, things started to pick up after page 200 or so, and I began to remember who each character was, and so I immersed myself into it.
We have three candidates; among them, one is Miles Mollinon, Howard’s son; one is Cubby Wall, Fats’s father who supports Barry’s ideas and the third, Simon Price (Andrew’s father), just feels the need to be a part of the Council. He doesn’t have any political agenda of his own.

As I read more, I realised the fact that Barry’s faction consists of people that would support Fields in Barry’s memory or to get one up on the Mollinsons, but they don’t actually care about the drama that’s going on there.
Barry was a much appreciated man: he was funny, he motivated people, and he cared – a quality that was very rare in Pagford, as we understand. He managed to get around him all the “outsiders” and the “underdogs” and give them something new, something beautiful, a hope and a dream.

I was attracted more to the teenager’s stories, personally; I liked Andrew, who unfortunately was beaten often by his father, for little to no reason, bullied and pushed around. I liked Sukhvinder, neglected by her ambitious mother Parminder Jawanda, a doctor, because of her bad grades and „inability” to be a smart kid, like her two elder brother and sister. I liked Stuart (Fats) in the beginning, for his intelligence and his “authentic” way of thinking and acting – meaning, he was very sincere and he couldn’t stand hypocrisy, so he didn’t have a very good relationship with his father the school vice-principal either. I liked Gaia before I heard her talk – Gaia is the prototype of beautiful lady, raised and educated in London, but outside of her acceptance of Indian girls and girls like Krystal, she looks down on people while mourning the life she left behind, and her language is not much more of an improvement from the one used by Pagfordian boys after a drink and some marijuana.

These teens start trouble, as the computer class at their school teaches them how to use a so-called SQL injection.
The site of the Council is managed by a Mollinson wife without a lot of computer knowledge, and Andrew, unable to withstand the shame to have his horrible father as part of the Council, for all the world to see what he really is like, manages to log into Barry’s account, changing the username to “The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother” and he posts a message about Simon Price not being a good candidate because he bought stolen computers and he uses the typography at his working place for personal gain.
Simon is fired eventually, and he is advised to drop out. Andrew is relieved, even if Simon beats up his entire family in frustration. He keeps quiet, but his idea is about to be copied by Sukhvinder, who is constantly harassed at school and at home on Facebook by Fats. Fats constantly insults the girl because she has hirsutism and she’s not very good-looking. At some point he even calls her a lesbian because she hangs out with Gaia a lot. She had taken to cutting herself in secret, every time this happens. And her mother complaining about Sukhvinder’s grades is just the final straw. The girl is not stupid: she knows how to copy/paste a code and she had a spelling/grammar autocorrect software, so she writes about how her mother isn’t doing these things because she loves Fields, but because she was in love with Barry.
Fed up with his father, Fats writes the next message, talking about his father’s OCD – that he obsesses about many things, the last one being his young students at school.
The last message is a revenge from Andrew to the Mollinsons, in a moment of affection to Simon – he writes about Howard Mollinson cheating on his wife with his business partner.

All these messages are deleted shortly after being written, but the world talks and Barry’s faction is deeply affected by it. Parminder has a nervous breakdown during one of the Council’s meeting – that she learns to regret as she is suspended from her work and loses her place in the Council.

Very quickly, the cards begin to fall and pretty much everyone gets it. Karma hits them all with a vengeance as the truth begins to come out everywhere.

As J.K. said, this book raises one important question: “what do we do about Krystal?”
Krystal falls into a spiral of depression after Barry’s death, losing pretty much the only man that ever believed in her. She must take care of her drug addict mother and her little brother Robbie. She must do her best to keep her mother off drugs so that Bellchapel doesn’t kick her out of their rehabilitation program again, while going to school and taking care of Robbie. At the same time, she lives her teenage life – discovering her sexuality with Fats and hanging around with her friends. She keeps away from heavy drugs, but she won’t say no to alcohol and cigars. She even smokes marijuana with Fats before “doing it”.

This book ends with a death, or rather two deaths that become a serious wake-up call for Pagford. Some women begin to regret their lack of care; Fats confesses to being the hacker, taking responsibility for all messages, even though he knows Andrew was the first to write; and two more places in the Council are about to be occupied quietly, without any more elections, by Mollison’s adversary Cubby Wall and Miles Mollison’s wife Samantha that discovered suddenly that she does care about Fields and Bellchapel and Pagford’s fate in general.

The last funeral is beautiful and heartbreaking; it has something in common with Barry’s funeral: Rihanna and Jay-Z’s hit “Umbrella”, the special song of Barry’s precious champion rowing team sounds loud in the church. I think the number of hits on youtube will increase once more fans finish the book!

I heard that BBC will make a series after this book. I hope they know what they’re doing and I hope it will happen! I will watch it!

So, for the second half of the book, as I couldn’t put it down, I recommend all of you to read it and do your best to not cringe at our characters’ language.

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