Genre: Literary Fiction
Opening line: “Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.”
When Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies, the proper little English town of Pagford is thrown into disarray. Apparently, the town was not quite as serene as it appeared. Barry was on the Parish Council, which is embroiled in a bitter debate over a poor neighborhood called the Fields, where Barry had been raised and which he had been fighting for. The Fields is a blight on Pagford’s pristine reputation, and some members of the board want it to be reassigned to the neighboring town, Yarvil. Things get ugly as candidates come forward to fill Barry’s seat. At the same time, an anonymous user called The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother starts posting secrets about town council members on the parish website.
Rather than following one main character, this book follows people on both sides of the debate—those who want the Fields to belong to Yarvil, and those who want to keep it. There’s Colin, the high school principal who suffers from severe OCD; his wife, Tessa, who is the high school counselor; Kay the social worker who just moved to town to be with her reluctant boyfriend, Gavin; Miles, Gavin’s coworker at a law firm, who wants to replace Barry on the council; Samantha, Miles’s wife who secretly dreams of being young, reckless, and free again; Simon Price, a thieving factory worker who beats his family, and his wife Ruth, who looks the other way from her husband’s wrong-doings; Howard and Shirley, the town’s patriarch and matriarch; Parminder, one of Barry’s closest friends and the town’s doctor; and many more. And then there are the teens of the town: Krystal, who lives in the Fields and takes care of her brother, Robbie; Andrew, the son of Simon and Ruth Price; “Fats,” the son of Colin and Tessa who’s having an existential crisis; Gaia, Kay’s daughter; and Sukhvinder, Parminder’s daughter who is being bullied at school.
I had been warned away from this book many times. I was told it was boring and not nearly as good as Harry Potter. Well, since I’m not a big Harry Potter fan, I should’ve known that I would like this. I thought it was wonderful. Despite following SO many narrators, Rowling’s characters are well-developed. They are all shown to be complex, with secrets, fears, and hopes for their lives.
As I’ve been diagnosed with a very, very mild case of OCD, I was really struck by Rowling’s empathetic portrayal of Colin, who suffers from the “sinner” form of OCD. When people typically think of OCD, they imagine people who count everything, wash their hands until they’re raw, or have to straighten picture frames. The “sinner” is the forgotten form of OCD; sufferers are plagued by questions like, “What if I killed someone and don’t know about it?” “Did I hurt that person/object when I touched him/it?” “What if I didn’t turn my hair straightener off, and my house burns down?” “Did I commit a crime without knowing?” “Will I go to hell for this?” Other forms of OCD are easier to recognize because of the compulsion; with this type of OCD, the compulsion may just be praying a lot for forgiveness, or checking 50 times to make sure the straightener is off, or running your hands along the wood to make sure you didn’t scratch it—all the while trying not to let your nails touch the surface again for fear of scratching it. Or there isn’t really a compulsion. It’s just an obsession, a continuous, debilitating worry. In Colin’s case, he’s plagued by the fear of molesting one of his students:
He was recalling thoughts that were as vivid as memories, as sensory impressions, violent, vile ideas: a hand seizing and squeezing as he passed through densely packed young bodies; a cry of pain, a child’s face contorted. And then asking himself, again and again: had he done it? Had he enjoyed it? He could not remember.
That is so heartbreaking to read. And it’s pretty accurate.
The other heart-wrenching story is Krystal’s. Krystal is from the Fields, but because it is technically part of Pagford, she attends school with the wealthy Pagford kids. All of the parents and teachers look on her as the embarrassment of the school. How did a Fields kid end up going to school with their children? What they don’t know is that when Krystal goes home, she has to clean up her mom who is constantly high, protect herself from her mom’s dealer, and singlehandedly take care of her young brother, Robbie. Krystal and Robbie have been taken away from their mother before, and Krystal dreads Robbie being taken from her again. As long as Krystal can make it look like their mother is taking care of them, they can stay together.
This book raised my esteem for J. K. Rowling. I can’t deny that she’s an amazing writer. She knows how to tell a story.