It took so long writing this I couldn’t get it up on Sep. 28th, but I did attempt to upload it on Sep. 29, but it just said “downloading” on and on forever. I left it alone for an hour once, and it still said that. I had given up on continuing this, but five days after I had given up all hope, I identified the problem. I was trying to upload the post in the above “new post” instead of the part on the side.

So let’s jump right in. Yes, I am doing the whole thing. I am aware that I could just do “Parts I-V” and then “Parts VI-X” next. But I’m trying to be efficient.

I

We are introduced to new characters, Barry and Mary’s friends that ran out of the restaurant to aid them. The main theme seems to be exploring how different people react to death. And in the case of Miles Mollison, it’s largely selfishness, wanting to be the first to tell his parents, Howard and Shirley, the news, and make it all about his experience. The same is true for his wife, Samantha, although she does seem genuinely disturbed by the experience.

“Fairbrother’s <italicsdeaditalic>?” roared Howard.

The inflection implied that he had been expecting some dramatic change in the status of Barry Fairbrother, but that even he had not anticipated actual death.

I honestly think Rowling does a great job writing these characters’ reaction to Barry Fairbrother’s death and simultaneously letting us get to know who these people are, but this last sentence annoyed me. The italicization of “dead” made that very obvious without having to say it.

Also, I’d heard about Rowling’s adult material in this book, and seeing it here reminds me annoyingly of Sara Gruen’s writing in how gratuitous and out-of-place it is.

Samantha’s dressing gown gaped open as she sat at the kitchen table, revealing the contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms. Upwards pressure made them appear fuller and smoother than they were when they hung unsupported. The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed. She had been a great user of sunbeds when younger.

Yeaaaah. Is this kind of vivid detail really necessary? All the same, it isn’t nearly as bad as Gruen.

And already Barry’s death is making people think.

Christ, it puts everything in perspective, though, doesn’t it, eh?”

II

We are introduced to a different family, the Prices and Rowling continues her excellent streak of combining who these people are and their reactions to Barry Fairweather’s death. Still, an actual plot related to any of these people has yet to form.

The woman, Mary, is a nurse and this provides for an interesting point of view on Barry’s death: from someone who already knows how fleeting life is, so this scarcely makes a difference.

Hardly able to bear the thought, she turned to look at Simon. His light-brown hair was still thick, his frame was almost as wiry as it had been in his twenties and the crinkles at the corners of his eyes were merely attractive, but Ruth’s return to nursing after a long break had confronted her anew with the million and one ways the human body could malfunction. She had had more detachment when she was young; now she realized how lucky they all were to be alive.

I’ve always thought being a doctor/nurse would change you in relation to how you view your morality, and Rowling does an excellent job portraying the way it does. Her husband manages to convince himself that Barry brought it on himself, though and that it could never happen to him, though, likely out of fear. How seriously does anyone take a headache, even one that lasts for days? Most would probably just think it stress-related, and so likely did Barry.

The son, Andrew, is a teenage boy, with his hidden contempt for his father, which is matched only by his father’s open contempt for him. And that’s just the way it is, isn’t it? He never says a word, but what he says inside…. Rowling has a very good understanding of the way teenage minds work with relation to teenagers and what they would like to say to their elders but what they can’t say, but I think Rowling is being too hard on him in writing “Inside his head, Andrew matched Simon obscenity for obscenity. Inside his head, he could take Simon for a fair fight.” Given the things he says in his head and the intelligence of his observations about his father, I think he might do a good job.

And a brief, unrelated note: I wonder how many people were puzzled/shocked by the father’s statement of “You want fags, you buy ’em”. Thankfully, I am familiar with the British meaning.

III
At this point, we realize Rowling is a master at combining showing us who these characters are and how they react to Barry’s death. There simply is no equal. Her character-building is magnificent, as well, and it has become clear this book is largely a character study.

Shirley Mollison is an unnerving person. She has nothing but excitement, glee, and happiness at the news of Barry Fairbrother’s demise, yet she keeps her emotions hidden very carefully, always polite and presenting a clean image to the world. She’s similar to Andrew in this regard, but she does a much better job at hiding her feelings.

But I wonder: with Rowling’s admitted obsession with death and her tendency, already-displayed, to kill off characters: are Shirley’s words about her husband’s last heart attack and how she knew he would survive an eerie foreshadowing of what to come, and how Shirley will be proven wrong? Or is it a red herring?

IV

We are back with the son, Andrew now, and this section focuses purely on him, Barry Fairweather’s demise only mentioned briefly to provide us with much-needed information on how Andrew’s parents are connected to Fairweather (not much).

I like how for as cynical and filled with anger Andrew is, he does have some softness beneath, and some of his thoughts are very poetic. I think Rowling might have gone a bit too far with his contempt of his father, though. This passage is truly disturbing:

As the bus turned left and trundled down Church Row, past the spacious Victorian houses ranged in descending tiers, Andrew indulged in a little fantasy in which his father dropped dead, gunned down by an invisible sniper. Andrew visualized himself patting his sobbing mother on the back while he telephoned the undertaker. He had a cigarette in his mouth as he ordered the cheapest coffin.

I’m sorry, Rowling, but I do not think it is normal for teenagers to genuinely loathe any of their parents to this extent that they fantasize about them dying, especially in this depraved, twisted way. Brrrr.

But then there are just simply paragraphs and paragraphs of Andrew’s infatuation with this girl, Gaia, and you can’t help but smile in a dumb, silly way reading it all through. Also, some of the adult material quoted is here, but Rowling did such a good job melding it in with the story that I hardly noticed it. (It’s not that adult material bothers me; it’s that too many authors, COUGH SARA GRUEN COUGH SARA GRUEN, simply throw it in to make their stories adult, in places where it is glaring and doesn’t belong.)

V

The story now goes to the house where Gaia lives, although it is centered around Gavin (the friend of Barry mentioned earlier, who I at first thought was his son), the lover of Gaia’s mother, Kay. Despite the paragraphs of sexual detail, though, I honestly didn’t think it was gratuitous. A plot is developing with these characters now, and we’re getting invested in their lives, and Rowling is exploring the regret, guilt, and attempts to end the relationship some men have after starting affairs with women, and it’s done very well.

On a side note: It’s a bit disturbing how he inadvertently cut his neck. What if he had slit his adam’s apple and ended up dead like Barry Fairbrother? Truly it is the casual vacancy that can happen at any time.

And just when I thought we were completely setting aside Barry Fairbrother’s death for the moment, it comes back, and I love how his desire to create an excuse for himself to leave quickly gives way to genuine shock.

“Jesus Christ,” he said in unfeigned horror.
“What’s the matter?”
“Barry. Barry Fairbrother! He’s…..fuck, he’s….he’s dead! It’s from Miles. Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ!”
She laid down the wooden spoon.
“Who’s Barry Fairbrother?”
“I play squash with him. He’s only forty-four! Jesus Christ!”

Quite on the contrary to Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, nothing in this book is remotely unrealistic or implausible, right down to the dialogue. (So far, of course. So far, just so people aren’t making fun of me if she screws it all up later. And I do think it’s a bit unrealistic Barry made out his will, since he was only 44, but it’s not really implausible.)

But oh, dear. How is he going to explain the damaged car to Kay later? But I do love how his worries about his life, so dwelled on before, are largely forgotten as he focuses on Barry’s death.

He was having difficulty getting enough air into his lungs. There was a tight knot in his chest. Only now did he realize that Barry Fairbrother had been his best friend.

Perfect, just perfect.

VI

No more meeting sets of new characters at this point. We’re right back with Andrew going to school.

Although I enjoyed it, this section has to be the most different one yet. I felt as I was reading an entirely different book. But I suppose the teenage life of high school is very different from the outside, adult world.

Also, the sexual material here relating to a provocative troublemaking girl named Krystal Weedon (now we know who she is, and now we see why  seems fairly blatantly thrown in to make this an adult book, but I’m not a prude. Maybe Krystal is going to be a very important character, and this is important for establishing who she is. It did seem ludicrous to me, though, that Rowling wrote (when referring to Andrew’s memory of 5-year-old Krystal pulling her pants down in class) that “He retained a vivid memory of her bare pink vulva; it was as though Father Christmas had popped up in their midst“. I cannot imagine any 5-year-old reacting sexually to that. And it seems so odd to have Krystal developed through Andrew’s POV when it had been focused firmly on his affections for Gaia, which it still is here.

I like Andrew’s friend, “Fats”, though; he has two embarrassing parents yet nobody picks on him because he doesn’t care about it, because he is firmly detached and unashamed and has such witty remarks back. Which is why I was a bit disappointed when his cool veneer breaks at the end. I liked the character that much I didn’t want to see it develop.

Also, the material with “Cubby” (who was the man called into the hospital after Miles and Samantha left) is humorous (though it made me feel I was reading a book for much younger readers and reminds of Harry Potter, not a complaint, just an observation).

One more thing: Barry Fairbrother worked on the parish council, wrote articles for the newspaper, and coached the local school’s girls’ rowing team? Did the man ever sleep?

VII

So now that we have gotten to know Howard’s son, daughter-in-law and wife, we shall now focus on Howard himself. Very good choice, Rowling.

He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they clapped eyes of him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

And what do I think of this glaring bit of adult material? Hilarious, absolutely hilarious.

And his, like his son’s, reaction to the death of Fairbrother, is selfish, wanting to be quick to inform his business partner, Maureen, about it. And now we get to the center of the plot, the title.

and then, at last, they reached the real point of departure, beside which all else was aimless meandering.

“What’ll happen?” Maureen asked Howard greedily.

“Ah,” said Howard. “Well, now. That’s the question, isn’t it? We’ve got ourselves a casual vacancy, Mo, and it could make all the difference.”

Howard is the Chair of the Parish Council and practically the Mayor of Pagford, it were a borough. And now we finally get to the main plot, which so intrigued us in the summary. The empty seat left by Fairbrother in the Parish Council.

Howard sipped his tea and said with a smile to take off the sting, “Fairbrother was a bugger, mind, Mo. He could be a real bugger.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I know.”
“I’d have had to have it out with him, if he’d lived. Ask Shirley. He could be an underhand bugger.”
“Oh, I know.”
“Well, we’ll see. We’ll see. This should be the end of it. Mind, I certainly didn’t want to win like this,” he added, with a deep sigh, “but speaking for the sake of Pagford…for the community…it’s not all bad…”

I was shocked to see Howard so suddenly reveal his true colors like this, to realize what a disgusting person he actually is. And now a new character is introduced, who puzzled me at first, Dr. Parminder Jawinda. They inform her of Fairbrother’s death, and she exhibits the most interesting reaction so far: she doesn’t believe it, she is convinced that they are joking. After all the times I told my father that our cat had gotten hit in the street and died (like our other cat) which he realized to be joking, I feared something like this might happen one day.

“… Mind you, it’ll be interesting,” he added, scratching idly at the overfold of his belly, which was often itchy, “To see what she…”
He left the sentence unfinished, but it did not matter: Maureen knew exactly what he meant. Both, as they watched Councillor Jawanda disappear around a corner, were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.

VIII

We follow Dr. Parminder home where she gets confirmation from her husband on the phone, and I find embarrasingly enough that my exuberant statement is proven wrong almost immediately. The mourning isn’t quite over. I was wrong to think so little of Rowling’s characterization. Dr. Parminder is disgusted with Howard and Maureen, and her reaction is probably the most genuinely sad and unselfish of all the characters’. Rowling, I’m sorry I underestimated you.

And how does she think of such witty dialogue scenes like this, that don’t come naturally to one’s mind at all?

“You’ve got a cow-faced house,” she had told him.
“Cow-faced? What does that mean?”
“It’s narrower at the front than at the back. It’s lucky. But you overlook a T-junction. That’s unlucky.”
“So we’re luck-neutral,” Barry had said.

This kind of creativity doesn’t always work to her advantage, though. The section mentioning the tree in the backyard is strange. And would the neighbors really scold them for cutting down their own tree? It’s so odd and glaring. It seizes our thoughts and our attention away from important things, and it is completely irrelevant.

But the reason it bothers me is largely that the important thing, Dr. Parminder’s grief is so well-written, so believable, and so heart-wrenching. We get yet another example of the “casual vacancy”, her father’s death at fifteen. Just like Jake Epping in 11/22/63 (which is turning out to be my favorite novel of all time), they did not see her cry, but she did cry. And just like Jake Epping, she was not emotionally blocked. (Also, I know Rowling’s whole idea of death as a “casual vacancy” is inspired by her mother’s death, but I wonder if this description of Dr. Parminder’s reaction to her father’s death is how Rowling reacted to her mother’s death at the time.)

And I loved how Rowling is not afraid to mention another religion than Christianity, and how she is not afraid to, and does so masterfully, evoke emotion with pieces of writing from another religion than Christianity.

IX

It’s clear that information about Krystal was completely important to establishing her character, because as I suspected, she is going to be an important character. She is in the counselor’s office, a troubled child who has often cut school in the past. But even she is not a cookie-cutter rebel teenager, and is greatly saddened by Barry’s death, as well, angry that Cubby accused of her laughing at the news. And wouldn’t that make you angry? It reminds me of when my sister told me off because she thought I was laughing at my sister’s hurt ears, even though my ears were beaten by my stepfather when I was young and I would never laugh at that, and I even said I felt sorry for her earlier. It makes me angry to recall, let’s move on.

Tessa knew that Krystal’s familiarity with sudden death was greater than her own. People in Krystal’s mother’s circle died prematurely with such frequency that they might have been involved in some secret war of which the rest of the world knew nothing. Krystal had told Tessa how, when she was six years old, she had found the corpse of an unknown young man in her mother’s bathroom.

Jeez. No one in my family has ever died this suddenly except for an uncle who was hit by a train at 18 driving across the tracks, but this was before my father was born, and there was a relative who died of tuberculosis in his twenties, but that was before my grandmother was born. All right, nix that. My great-grandmother died suddenly of a heart attack at breakfast when I was three, but she was in her eighties then. Still a “casual vacancy”, I suppose.

This section is written very well, with the emotional relationship of the counselor, Tessa, and Krystal done excellently. And I like how the counselor is the Mrs. Wall who went to the doctor’s office after the Mollisons left. I like how interrelated the characters are and how we get to look in all around town at the various things they’re all doing and how they’re reacting to Barry Fairbrother’s death, and the consistency of the narrative. I suppose it’s childish of me.
X

Rowling’s writing here reminds me very much of the opening of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, just as I imagined it would in this book. It’s very good prose, well-written and fun to read. And Rowling portrays the effects of a person’s death on the people who knew him very well and touchingly.

But then the story goes to Simon Price in his office, which surprised me a little. Rowling had introduced so many characters already I imagined Simon Price was only in the story to be Andrew’s father, otherwise irrelevant. She is challenging herself introducing and developing this many characters and their relationships between characters, and she does a remarkably good job of it. I’m surprised she can keep any of it straight.

Also, the scene reminds me a lot of her description of Mr. Dursley at work in the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and I find it very irritating that the forklift driver he speaks to has literally the exact same accent as Hagrid. But this is a minor quibble, I suppose.

It’s interesting to see that Simon is genuinely shaken by Barry’s death at a young age, terrified that he himself will die too. I imagined most people in the story would simply conclude that it would never happen to them, which many have, but it’s clear Rowling is not trying to make any real statement about human nature, but rather believes that humans are very different.

And he learns from the forklift driver new, surprising information about Barry Fairbrother: that he was corrupt, taking bribes from another company to keep their workers as contractors. I have to wonder whether this is true or not, though, considering Rowling wrote that “Gradually the facts lost form and focus; in some cases they became distorted” when referring to the word spreading of Barry’s death.

And Simon respects him for it. In a masterful stroke, Rowling uses this opportunity to develop Simon’s character, and what’s more, set the main plot in place, as he too thirsts for Barry’s empty seat in the Parish Council.

There, in his poky office, Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.

And for as long as this chapter was, it was mainly set-up for the main plot and the intrigue we were promised. But it did a masterful job at that. She spends it developing the characters, the character relationships, and showing how they react to Barry’s death, giving us glimpses into their personal lives, and all of it is extremely well-done and perfectly believable. It’s not without flaws, but it’s very good writing, and I think I’m really going to like this book.

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