In my review for Books and Culture (online edition) I look at an aspect of The Casual Vacancy that other reviewers didn't mention, to my knowledge--its fairly obvious theological underpinnings. (Quite a few other underpinnings are fairly obvious in the book as well, but I decided not to mention them in the review.) It would make me and B&C editor John Wilson very happy if you'd click the link and read my review on the B&C website.
In the review, I argue that Rowling's village of Pagford is post-Christian. Indeed, it is post-moral: love of neighbor is sorely lacking. Instead, we see status seeking. Middle-class chauvinism. Decreasing funds for social services. Increasing poverty. Love of money. Selfishness. Bullying. Disdain for outsiders (gays, people of color, people on welfare, mentally ill people, ugly people). Abuse. Fractured relationships. Polarization. And on, and on. If you've been paying attention to U.S. or U.K. politics recently, the picture will look depressingly familiar.
In Pagford there's a shabby little street called Hope. Three of the book's characters have lived there. One moved out long ago and became one of the town's biggest (literally) hypocrites. One died. And by book's end, one is getting ready to leave. There are still plenty of people in Church Row, though. You just might not want to spend time with them.
A lot of readers have found A Casual Vacancy dull. I understand: it didn't grab me until I was past page 200 (I stuck with it because I had a review to write). Then I read it a second time, and found it interesting right from the beginning. I think that's because by then I knew all the characters and could just read the story without trying to sort out Colin and Gavin and Simon (why do Brits have so many five-letter names that end in "n"?). To make your reading more enjoyable right from the start, here's a list of the book's major characters. Print it out and use it as a bookmark:
- Barry and Mary Fairbrother and four children including the twins, Niamh and Siobhan. Barry, who was born in the Fields but became a banker, dies. The family lives in Church Row.
- Miles and Samantha Mollison and two daughters, Lexie and Libby. Miles practices law and Samantha owns a bra shop. They also live in Church Row.
- Howard and Shirley Mollison, parents of Miles and Patricia (who now lives in London). Howard owns the village deli and is president of the Parish Council (sort of like being mayor); Shirley is a hospital volunteer. They live around the corner from Church Row in Evertree Crescent.
- Colin and Tessa Wall and their son, Stuart ("Fats"). Colin is deputy headmaster at the comprehensive school (=high school vice principal); Tessa is a guidance counselor. Fats is in high school. They live in Church Row.
- Simon and Ruth Price and two sons, Andrew ("Arf") and Paul. Simon works at the printworks; Ruth is a nurse. Arf is in high school.
- Vikram and Parminder Jawanda and three children including Sukhvinder, the youngest, a high school student. Both parents are doctors. They live in the Old Vicarage.
- Gavin Hughes, divorced, a junior partner in the law firm where Miles Mollison is senior partner. He lives outside town at the Smithy.
- Kay Bawden and her daughter, Gaia. Kay is a social worker; Gaia is in high school. They live in Hope Street. Kay and Gavin have a rocky relationship.
- Terri Weedon and her children Krystal and Robbie. Terrie is a junkie and a prostitute who lives in the Fields (a subsidized housing project). Krystal is a classmate of Fats, Arf, Sukhvinder, and Gaia. Robbie is three years old.
- Nana Cath, Terri's grandmother. At various times she has taken care of Terri and Krystal. She lives in Hope Street.
OK, now you're ready to read. Or to resume reading, if you gave up early. The Casual Vacancy, as everyone points out, is not Harry Potter. All the same, it's worth getting into if you want to think about what the Muggle world might look like without Hogwarts, without Dumbledore, and without Harry.