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Literature: The Casual Vacancy

They were all perfectly ridiculous, Samantha thought, sitting here in front of Shirley’s commemorative plates as if they were in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street, as though one bit of tittle-tattle on a Parish Council website constituted an organized campaign, as though any of it mattered.

The Casual Vacancy is a 2012 Lit Fic novel by J. K. Rowling, and her first book outside of the Harry Potter-verse.

It's Twenty Minutes into the Past, and the little English town of Pagford is in shock. Barry Fairbrother, a popular member of the local parish council, has dropped dead of a brain aneurysm on his wedding anniversary. Though everyone is impacted by his death, the ensuing drama and election to fill the casual vacancy Barry left behind reveals a town that is tearing itself apart over what to do with a housing project known as "The Fields", that is outside the jurisdiction of both Pagford and the neighbouring larger town of Yarvil. The novel follows a rotating cast of characters as egos are bruised and family tensions boil over, and meanwhile, a certain mysterious someone or three is posting townsfolk secrets on the local website...

The Casual Vacancy was met with interest when first announced in April of 2012. Upon its release, the critical response was strictly Love It or Hate It, with some enjoying the change of writing style, while others complained that it was too different from her older work. Sales were respectable, but still far less than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Rowling has said that a Film Of The Book would be highly unlikely given its structure; however, the BBC plan on turning the novel into a TV miniseries instead.

The Casual Vacancy Provides Examples Of:

  • Abusive Parents: Simon and Colin, but especially Simon. Parminder too, of the emotional variety, to her dyslexic daughter, Suhkvinder.
  • Acceptable Targets:invoked In-universe with Fats by the end of the book. The community holds him responsible for Robbie's drowning, so abusing him has become "a duty and a pleasure."
  • Adult Fear: Fair warning, parents - after reading this book, you'll never let your toddler near a quiet country river again.
  • Agony of the Feet: Happens deservedly to Simon Price after he aims a kick at his son Andrew and misses.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Ruth Price did... and now she's paying for it.
  • All Love Is Unrequited:
    • Gavin and Mary. To say that it backfires would be a massive understatement.
    • There's also Parminder who was secretly in love with Barry Fairbrother.
    • Colin and Tessa Wall are still together. So are Miles and Samantha Mollison who reconcile once Howard Mollison has another heart attack and is in critical condition.
    • Throughout most of the book, Gaia barely knows Andrew exists. The end of the book shows her warming to him and the two of them planning to go out once Andrew's family moves to Reading. She's fully aware of him taking an interest in her, as she notices him staring at her constantly, but this quote keeps the outcome ambiguous: "She was worth much more than Fats Wall, she knew that. If it had even been Andy Price, she would have felt better about it."
  • And Some Other Stuff: The hacking scenes are not elaborated on beyond the vague description of "SQL injection".
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Behind closed doors, the Mollisons don't make much of an effort to look sorry for Barry Fairbrother's death.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Um, here's a hint for you Gavin: if you've lusted over a woman for years, do NOT tell her how you feel when she's just been widowed.
  • Arranged Marriage: The town finds it fascinating that Parminder and Vikram had one.
  • Attention Whore: what motivates quite a few people in Pagford is their desperate need for attention.
  • Big Fun / Fat Bastard:
    • Howard, depending on your point of view.
    • Also depends on who you are. If Howard genuinely likes someone then his affability is genuine, if he doesn't he's just acting jolly and friendly to wind that person up.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Shirley.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hooray, the local election is over, Andrew and Gaia are making plans to go out in Reading, and some of the citizens of Pagford are starting to like each other! But Krystal, Robbie and Nana Cath are dead, Terri has completely broken down, Fats has become a self-loathing pariah, Colin and Simon's lives have been ruined by their own sons, Gavin is alone and miserable, Kay might be unemployed, Simon is still abusing his family, and Howard is still in the hospital recovering from his heart attack, his condition stable but his ultimate fate unknown.
  • Black Comedy
  • Book Ends:
    • The book begins and ends with a casual vacancy, due to Barry's death and Parminder's resignation respectively.
    • Also, Barry's funeral near the beginning, and the funeral of Krystal and Robbie at the end. At both of them, "Umbrella" by Rihanna is played.
    • Additionally, the Winterdown rowing crew gets a bookend. Early in the book, at Barry's funeral, the rowing team all pay up to give Barry a proper coffin, except for Krystal. In the very last scene of the book, at the funeral for the Weedons, everyone on the rowing crew pays for nice coffins except for Krystal, because she's dead. Also, Krystal is the only member of the rowing team who's absent at Barry's funeral. At her funeral the absent ones are Barry's daughters, whose mother'd discouraged them to go.
    • It's heavily implied that the final Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother post was made by it's creator, Andrew Price.
  • The Bully: Fats, to Sukhvinder. He's mean and cowardly.
  • Break the Haughty: Fats, Howard and Shirley.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Oh come on, this is J. K. Rowling we're talking about. What else were you expecting? Though to be fair, the way that the various guns come together in the final act is quite different from Harry Potter, and can best be described as a cross between For Want of a Nail and Disaster Dominoes.
    • The watch that Krystal steals from Tessa early in the book. Terri finds it in Krystal's room and sells it to Obbo for £20 with which she buys a stack of smack and hashish, which is heavily implied to be the same stash Krystal uses to kill herself.
    • The remains of the computer that Simon throws into the river cause a gash in Sukhvinder's leg when she tries to rescue Robbie, which leads to her parents finding out about her cutting.
    • The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, who wreaked havoc during the election, shows up one last time a few days later to expose Howard's affair with Maureen.
    • Andrew's Epi Pen is nearly used by Shirley to murder Howard, until he gets a heart attack of his own accord. It stays as a small source of guilt for Shirley, until she quickly suffers from Aesop Amnesia.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Patricia Mollison is mentioned early on but doesn't show up till near the end, long enough to drop the bombshell that Howard has been having an affair with Maureen before leaving, giving The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother one last bullet to fire.
  • But Not Too Gay: Patricia Mollison, who is mentioned in the story repeatedly and identified as a lesbian and in a relationship, but whose partner is only discussed, never shown on-screen.
  • City Mouse: Gaia Bawden
  • Cluster F-Bomb: All over the place. Terri and her daughter Krystal are especially adept at it.
  • Comforting the Widow: Gavin, who had always been in love with Mary, tries to tell Mary how he felt just weeks after Barry's death. It does not work. At all.
  • Cosmic Deadline: A Double Subversion. The election plotline that has driven the story thus far is resolved with 100 pages to go, and considering the large cast of characters, you're led to believe there will be a long, slow denoument. The book complies for a while with everyone celebrating Miles' election win and Howard's birthday, and then WHAM! In the span of 75 pages, The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother strikes again, Samantha takes her Mrs. Robinson antics too far, Gavin's attempt at widow-comforting goes horribly wrong, Shirley finds out about Howard's affair and almost KILLS him before he suffers his second heart attack, Krystal decides she's had enough, tries to run away with Robbie and Fats, Robbie drowns in the river, Krystal commits suicide out of despair, and everyone gets their character arcs resolved and the town is changed forever. Hope you like your explosive endings, folks!
  • Council Estate: The Fields, which is under the jurisdiction of two councils, though neither wants it anymore.
  • Darker and Edgier: Edgier, and just as dark, as Rowling's previous work. The only thing that's less dark is the body count.
  • Decoy Protagonist:
  • Despair Event Horizon: Terri completely loses it when she finds out Robbie has drowned. We don't see her reaction to learning about Krystal committing suicide, but presumably she got worse.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Each of The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother posts is a result of the attacked Council's candidates or members' abuse of his or her children (though in Fats' case "abuse" may be a bit of a stretch). Only Patricia doesn't post the entry herself, but she's the one who spills her father's secret to the teenagers who eventually publish it, after being treated badly by her parents at a party.
  • Disaster Dominoes: The last 50 or so pages of the book could be considered this, with the Chekhov's Armory serving as the dominoes. It's astounding how everyone seems to be nearby or at the scene when Robbie and Krystal die. Then again, it IS a small town, and there had been another tragic accident around the same time.
  • Doorstopper: At 503 pages, it's shorter than the last four Harry Potter books, but still quite hefty. On the other hand, its pages are larger than the North American/British edition of any of the Potters.
  • Driven to Suicide: Krystal Weedon, after she realizes that Robbie's death was all her fault.
  • Epigraph: The start of each "part" gives relevant quotes from Charles Arnold-Baker's Local Council Administration, Second Edition (such as the definition of a casual vacancy).
  • Expy: The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother posts seem to be this of The Half-Blood Prince's potion book both are mysterious entities in written form that are personified by the characters in an almost legendary way as if both are some sort of mythical being.
  • Facebook: Plays an unsurprisingly large role in the lives of the younger Pagfordians.
  • Fanservice with a Smile:
    • The reason Howard Mollison hires Gaia as a waitress.
    • Later crosses into Squick. At first, Howard seems a mostly harmless fat old man that likes to look at pretty young girls because he's not getting any at home. Then, once his affair with Maureen gets exposed, it becomes clear that he may have had a far more substantial agenda on Gaia.
  • Fetish Fuel:
  • Flipping the Bird:
    • "I DI'N' DO NOTHIN', YOU PRICK!"
    • The British two-finger salute is mentioned a few times, but no one actually does it.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • When we are first introduced to Howard Mollison, there's a lengthy monologue about how his weight means he probably hasn't seen his penis in years, and the community wonders whether Howard has ever used it like he should. His weight leads to his second heart attack in the final act, while his penis has been busy in the mouth of his partner, Maureen.
    • Terri's Mama Bear instincts, and particularly the fear of losing Robbie, are stressed to be one of the only things that can motivate Terri into kicking her drug habit. The last time we see her, having lost both of her children, she has crossed the Despair Event Horizon without so much as a backward glance.
    • Fats' adoption, Colin's OCD and Parminder's crush on Barry are indirectly addressed near the beginning of Part 2. It's subtle enough that a first-time reader will probably miss them and without giving too much away to spoil the plot for attentive readers, making this more of a Reread Bonus.
  • Funetik Aksent:
    • Characters from Yarvil get a accent similar to Hagrid's, with plenty of apostrophes and missing h's, to distinguish them from the Pagford folk.
    • See BritishAccents for more information.
  • Glory Hound: Andrew suspects that Fats took the credit for all of The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother's posts when he only wrote one of them for this reason.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: How Mary Fairbrother feels about Krystal Weedon.
  • The Hero Dies: To many Fielders, that's what Barry's death feels like.
  • Hollywood Hacking: Surprisingly averted- SQL injection is shown mostly realistically (if vaguely), and is actually one of the first tools a real hacker would use against a website (due to its ease of execution and difficulty of authorities to trace).
  • Hypocrite: Two people get called out for their own, more socially acceptable, substance abuse while they're advocating for the closure of the addiction clinic. Dr. Parminder Jawanda is accused of hypocrisy in her motives for her pro-Fields advocacy by The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.
    • Kay cares little about her daughter's friendships and love life, when tearing her off her social circle in London, and when Gaia's now long-distance relationship fails, Kay says something like "some boy's dumped her" (though she regrets her words as soon as they come out). Did we mention that Kay's motivation for moving and dragging her daughter along, is a pursuit of a man? A man who obviously does his best to avoid her advances?
  • Infant Immortality: Averted with Robbie.
  • Info Dump: A section called (Olden Days) between Parts 1 and 2 explains the history of Pagford, the animosity between Pagford and Yarvil, and why the Fields are such a big deal.
  • Isn't It Ironic?:invoked Krystal has no idea what the lyrics to Umbrella mean, but she likes them.
  • It's All About Me: Really this is a flaw that a lot of characters share. Gavin in particular exhibits this, allowing his girlfriend, Kay Bawden, to uproot her and her daughter's life to move to Pagford despite not actually loving her. Colin too but his Super OCD gives him an excuse.
    • Kay herself is quite an offender, seeming to jump at the opportunity of a relationship with Gavin despite his efforts to communicate to her that he does not love her despite the extreme inconvenience it causes for her daughter.
    • Mary Fairbrother, Barry's widow, surprisingly gets hit with this. She was disapproving over how much time her husband spent on Krystal Weedon, the counsel, and his other projects; disagreeing with him about whether anyone in the Fields was worth anything. She is treated sympathetically for most of the novel, considering that Barry didn't seem to pay her much attention, but reaches mean-spirited levels when she refuses to attend Krystal's funeral, both forbidding her children from going and despairing that Krystal will be buried anywhere near Barry.
  • Karma Houdini: Obbo, the drug-dealing child rapist whose actions inadvertently cause the deaths of Robbie and Krystal, gets off with zero repercussions whatsoever. Though not as bad as Obbo, this also applies to Simon. Although he loses his job because of his petty crimes, he gets another job in Reading and shows no signs of stopping his domestic abuse of his wife and sons.
  • Killed Off for Real: Aside from Barry, Nana Cath, Robbie, and Krystal are dead, Howard is in stable but critical condition, and Terri might as well be dead considering what she's lost.
  • Kissing Cousins: Krystal had sex with one of her cousins, Dane, at 14.
  • Kissing Under the Influence:
    • A drunk Gaia and Fats.
    • Same with Samantha and Andrew.
  • Leitmotif:
    • Rihanna's "Umbrella" appears to be one for Krystal and the rowing team, to the point where they request that it be played at Barry Fairbrother's funeral as the casket is led out of the church.
    • It gets played again at Krystal's funeral.
  • Lack of Empathy: Fats is deliberately trying to invoke this in his effort to be more "authentic." Some of the adults display this naturally.
  • Lady Drunk: Samantha.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: There are less characters here than in Rowling's previous work, but they still number in the double digits, and several of them can count as protagonists in their own right.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Another Signature Style of Rowling's.
    • Simon Price is obsessed with making money and getting into politics so he can save money. While the Price part is obvious, Simon means "reputation" as well as "to be heard" in Hebrew.
    • His son Andrew means "warrior," and he is one of the most aggressive characters in his war against his father.
    • Gaia Bowden. Gaia means earth and is often portrayed in fiction and mythology as mother earth and nature which is fitting with Gaia's natural, unspoiled beauty.
    • The drug dealer and all-around criminal, Obbo. "Yobbo" is a British slang term for a thug.
  • Mrs. Robinson:
    • Samantha is a wannabe, to the point where she tries to force herself on Andrew.
    • She also has fantasies about members of a boy band her daughters like.
    • Averted with her lusting after Vikram Jawanda who is either her age or older.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: After three-year-old Robbie drowns in the river while his sister, Krystal, and Fats are having sex in the bushes nearby, Krystal is Driven to Suicide via heroin overdose. Fats, meanwhile, completely crosses the Despair Event Horizon and becomes a shell of his former self. Samantha Mollison, who remembers having seen Robbie alone by the river but, absorbed with her own problems, did nothing about it, decides to become The Atoner and join the Parish Council to see if she can keep the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic open.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Kay Bawden
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead / Speak Ill of the Dead: Played with. The book notes that Robbie is seen as a martyr because of his very young age and the way that he died, while Krystal's suicide by jabbing a drug needle into her arm tarnishes her postmortem reputation, and she's remembered by all but the old rowing crew as a worthless junkie.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Fats.
  • No Guy Wants to Be Chased: The reason why Gavin prefers Mary over Kay.
  • Not Me This Time: Krystal's done a lot of authority-defying things, but laughing at Cubby's breakdown when he's announcing Barry's death at the school assembly is not one of them.
  • Paranoia Fuel:invoked For the inhabitants of Pagford, the postings of The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother on the Parish Council's website certainly count.
  • Parental Abandonment:
    • Krystal Weedon is fatherless and her mother is neglectful.
    • Subverted with Gaia Bowden whose father left her mother when she was conceived, though it's heavily implied she's in contact with him and knows that he is married, has some children, and where he lives.
  • Parental Substitute:
    • Krystal Weedon sees Barry Fairbrother as this because she knows almost nothing about her birth father who is also named Barry. He seems to treat her nicely and saw something special in her.
    • Steve, Kay's longtime boyfriend for 8 years was this to Gaia teaching her to ride a bike and attending parents nights at her school. Kay latching onto Gavin is heavily implied to be a desperate attempt, after her split with Steve, to try and make Gavin this to Gaia.
  • Pedo Hunt: An interesting variation, where the apparent 'pedophile's sexual thoughts about children are actually caused by OCD, rather than a genuine attraction to underage people. Regardless, when The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother reveals Colin's secret, his chances for a council seat drop to zero.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Parminder and Vikram. Parminder insists that their parents arranged their meeting but did not force them to marry each other.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Three guesses who.
  • Purple Prose:
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Howard Mollison succeeds in both getting his son, Miles, to join the Parish Council, and gets the responsibility for the Fields foisted onto Yarvil's shoulders. Afterwards, however, his affair with his business partner, Maureen, is discovered by his wife, he suffers a second heart-attack which renders him in critical condition and dumb, and he may or may not be aware that his wife was preparing to kill him for his infidelity. Also his daughter-in-law plans on joining the Council and getting the Bellchapel Clinic to stay open.
  • Really Gets Around: Krystal is referred to as "the school bike."
  • Rotating Protagonist: The point of view switches constantly, sometimes mid-chapter. The main protagonists appear to be (in no particular order) Howard, Fats, Tessa, Andrew, Krystal, Ruth, Gavin, Kay, Miles, Samantha, Parminder and Sukhvinder. Krystal becomes the unofficial heroine for a decent chunk of the story, Andrew gets a large amount of focus too, and has a large influence on the story, but even then the POV still rotates.
  • Sir/Lady Swears-a-Lot: Plenty of characters, but especially Krystal, who uses fuck the way most people use a comma. Several characters comment on this.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: They do exist, but they suck. And the social workers are the first to admit it.
  • Sour Prudes: Shirley Mollison, to the point that her husband has had an affair for more than a decade.
  • Stealth Pun: The citizens of Yarvil are known as Yarvilians
  • Super OCD: Colin
  • Take Up My Sword: Colin thinks he ought to do this for Barry's pro-Fields movement. His wife tries to talk him down to no avail.
  • Textual Celebrity Resemblance: Gaia's boyfriend Marco looks like Johnny Depp.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Past: It's unclear as to when the novel is supposed to take place, although there is a grave with a date-of-death of 2008 on it, Benazir Bhutto is apparently a topical reference, and Facebook plays a notable role in some of the subplots. The Nintendo DS is also mentioned at one point. Rhianna's "Umbrella" plays into it as well which was released in 2007 the same year when Rowling released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
  • The Unfavorite: Poor Suhkvinder. It's also implied that Patricia is this to Shirley.
  • Unfortunate Names: Krystal Weedon. Played with since Krystal doesn't really mind, and even joins in the joking herself.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Dear fucking god, is this ever averted. One look at Terri Weedon should tell you that much.
  • Unusual Chapter Numbers: The novel is split into parts, most of which are numberednote . Part 1 and 2 are split into days, which each have their own set of short chaptersnote , and the chapter count resets to I at the start of a new day. After a Time Skip, the days-of-the-week numbering is dropped, and instead chapter counts reset after each part. Got it?
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: We never find out who Fat's birth parents are.
  • White Sheep:
    • A weird non family example, but Barry Fairbrother could qualify as he seems to be really the only character who generally cares about the people of Pagford. He was really the only one who didn't see Krystal Weedon as some town bicycle bully. His allies Parminder and Colin are really only taking up his sword because that's what he would want, not necessarily because they think it's the right thing to do.
    • Patricia Mollison could qualify. While a minor character, she doesn't quite seem as bad as the rest of her family.
  • Woman Scorned: Although she later doubts she would have gone through with it, Shirley Mollison plans to kill her husband at one point when she discovers he's been cheating on her. She even brings the murder weapon home.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Howard Mollison.
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