Review originally from my Goodreads account, written April 2013.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book, but in the end I really ended up liking it. A lot of other reviewers advised, "Pretend it's NOT written by J.K. Rowling!!" Which I tried, but just couldn't. It IS J.K. Rowling, and powerfully so.
The book is definitely an uncomfortable read. It was kind of shocking to have my childhood hero's writing include cussing, "shagging," and drugs. But it isn't just shocking because of what we're used to Rowling writing – the book covers a lot of dark subject matter: rape, drug addiction, sex, death, failing marriages, self-harm, mental illness, guilt. Also, for me, the book had this rather nostalgic feeling of reading the beginning of a Harry Potter book, where the Dursleys are terrible and awful but you know that soon Harry will be able to escape to Hogwarts where everything is great and happy! Not so in The Casual Vacancy. The Casual Vacancy is reality. There are terrible people and the characters have to learn to deal with them or get them out of their lives.
Set in the quaint little English countryside town of Pagford, the book centers around the death of Parish councilor, Barry Fairbrother. Right away you get the idea that Barry is some kind of ~saint~ to the local population, except maybe for jolly ol' Howard Mollison. Howard is delighted, because this means he can finally help get rid of the blight of Pagford – a housing development called "The Fields." Nobody likes the Fields, because what started as affordable housing ended up being a community of drug addicts and "layabouts." Barry fought to keep The Fields a part of Pagford, as well as keeping the addiction clinic, Bellchapel, open. Howard and his crew want to slough off the burden that is The Fields onto the neighboring town.
Pretty much right away you get the idea that the adult population of Pagford are all kind of creeps, in their own way. Sure, a few of them have their good qualities, but most of them are self-centered and materialistic. This is only exacerbated by the contrast of Krystal Weedon and her heroin-addicted mother, Terri. Krystal lives pretty much in what we who watch reality TV would consider a "Hoarder's house." Beyond her crass façade, you discover a girl who's barely hanging on to the threads of a happy home life – Terri is barely human anymore, and can't really survive as a person without heroin. Krystal wants nothing more than to keep her little brother Robbie in her possession, which is hard because Terri can't even get out of her clouded, drugged-out state enough to take Robbie to daycare or change his "nappies." Krystal Weedon's life gives us a stark contrast to the people of Pagford, who's lives and worries suddenly seem petty. However, Rowling's talent as an author is proved great as she makes us side – or at least sympathize – with even the slimiest characters in the book. (How many of you remember feeling at least teary when creepy mean Dudley apologized to Harry in The Deathly Hallows??)
Rowling did a really great job of creating wonderful, multi-layered characters, most of whom I ended up having a love-hate relationship with. And although I think the book was very dark and not what I expected from Rowling, the characters' personalities and interweaved stories made the book very interesting and worth reading – not to mention the intense climax to the novel. I think for those of you who are afraid of reading this novel, you should at least give it a go. You might be surprised. Just remember, it's NOT Harry Potter! I'm not saying read it like it's not written by Rowling, but don't go into reading it expecting an escape into a fantasy world of happiness. It's definitely not an escape novel, but what it is, is an extremely powerful novel. I would definitely recommend reading it.