I had to read J.K. Rowling's first adult novel out of curiosity. I'd read a couple of the early Harry Potter books, before my kids were old enough to read them to themselves, so I knew she wrote well even though Harry Potter was not exactly my favourite genre. The Casual Vacancy did not disappoint. It wasn't great literature that will be studied in English classes forever but it was an entertaining read and did deal with some heavy issues - drug addiction, self-mutilation, class distinctions, OCD, marital discord, the serious repercussions of small town gossip and teenage angst, to name a few.
I was confused at the start. There are many characters and it was hard to keep them straight. The action starts with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a banker and a Pagford town councillor. We then examine how this death causes the unravelling of the many people he touched - his wife Mary and their four children, Miles and Samantha Mollison who saw him collapse in the parking lot of the golf club and accompanied him and his wife to the hospital, Miles' parents, Howard and Shirley. Howard is an obese deli owner and the head town councillor (the community is too small for him to warrant the term mayor) and was at odds with Barry before his death about the future of a subsidized housing project which the town wants to offload on a neighbouring borough and a drug rehab centre which occupies a town building. He now wants to put his son Miles on the council to fill the "casual vacancy" so he can get his way. But others want to run for the seat - Colin "Cubby" Wall who was Barry's friend and wants to carry on his legacy but suffers from severe OCD (he's a school principal who constantly imagines he's touched the children and is about to be exposed) and Simon Price, a small town criminal and abusive husband and father who figures it's a way to get rich quick by taking kickbacks. These are far from the only characters. We also glimpse Maureen, Miles' scrawny old partner in the deli with whom he's accused of having an affair, Parminder Jawanda, a family doctor and town councillor who was on Barry's side of the town debates (and perhaps secretly in love with him), Gavin, Miles' law partner who falls in love with Barry's widow, Kay, the girlfriend who has followed Gavin to Pagford in the mistaken belief they'll have a lasting relationship and is working as a social worker in the housing project so becomes a vocal proponent of it and the drug rehab centre, and Terri Weedon a heroin addict who finances her addiction through prostitution. Finally we meet the town's teenagers who play a central role in the action, Stuart "Fats" Wall, Andrew "Arf" Price, Sukhvinder Jawanda, Krystal Weedon and Kay's daughter Gaia. They are all involved in various types of rebellion against their parents and use their far superior computer skills to hack the town council's website (as the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother) setting in motion terrible consequences for their parents and ultimately themselves.
The stories of all the characters, and their complicated pasts, are woven together well and come to a perhaps inevitable but no less tragic end for many of the players. I don't want to give away the end because it's worth working through the initial confusion to see the story through to its conclusion.