5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
As others have pointed out, this is not Rowling’s first book for adults (she’s written seven others previously, and their titles all begin with Harry Potter and the), but it IS the first book she’s written that requires multiple trigger warnings (see spoilers below). This is definitely not the Potterverse, but fans of Rowlings will find her humor, her large cast of different, believable characters, and her deftly interwoven storylines have carried through. The book begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, who holds a seat on the Pagford Parish Council, and follows the inhabitants of the small town of Pagford through the aftermath of his passing, which has created the titular casual vacancy on the council. While this sounds rather dull compared to wizards fighting epic battles, the magic here is in Rowling’s ability to bring characters to life and have them interact with each other in fascinating and believable ways. She has answered the question of whether she can write non-Potter books with a resounding “Yes!”
Though the book revolves around Barry Fairbrother and his vacated council seat, he is the one character we know almost nothing of directly, though we see him through the eyes of almost every other character in the book. He is therefore the least real character, as he is elevated to almost mythic status (as people often are following their passing). He was a key player in a dispute regarding “the Fields,” a low income housing project and whether it rightly belongs to Pagford or neighboring rival Yarvil, so the fate of his council seat is quite important.
The book has a large cast of characters, and in the opening chapter or two it’s a bit hard to keep them all straight, but they quickly become real, distinct people, with their own relationships and agendas, and it all falls together quite nicely. We meet everyone from the new social worker to the town doctor, as well as the other council members, and see them all causing ripples in each other’s lives in a beautifully executed way. The stars, as with any Rowling book, are the teenagers; Rowling understands and writes teens in a way few other authors manage. This is definitely not a young adult book, however. More detail follows in the spoilers and trigger warnings, but this book has a gritty realism nowhere to be seen in the Potter books. People are unhappy with themselves, their lives, and their spouses. They are intentionally cruel and passive-aggressive, not universally so, but often. But there are moments of hope and redemption as well.
The overall plot builds slowly, but it is deftly handled and builds to a slow train wreck of a climax that you want to look away from but just can’t. Small details come back and fit together in unpredictable ways that just feel right, and you find yourself really, really caring about this small town and its political intrigues. Rowling also portrays poverty in a way that reminds you that she’s lived it; it’s almost heartbreakingly real at times.
In the way of trigger warnings, this book contains scenes involving self-harm (cutting), drug and alcohol use (heroin, marijuana), addiction, child abuse and neglect (and not in a cupboard-under-the-stairs kind of way), spousal abuse, severe bullying, teen sex, rape of a teenager by an adult, and suicide. This ain’t Hogwarts.
Comparisons to Other Books:
As unfair as it seems to compare any book to Harry Potter, it seems equally unfair to compare Rowling with anyone else. This book lacked the fantasy and imagination of the Potter books, but was able to display Rowling’s take on reality, which is equally intriguing.