As a longtime fan of the “Harry Potter” series, I (and countless others) eagerly anticipated the release of J. K. Rowling’s latest project – a novel for adults, centered on small-town drama in pastoral England. I’d heard reports it was dramatically different from her previous work, but no matter…good authors have consistently displayed a tendency to innovate.
The book opens with the tragic death of Barry Fairbrother, well-respected town councilman in the small community of Pagford. An election is quickly arranged to fill his empty seat – the titular “casual vacancy” – which leads to slowly escalating tensions throughout the town. It’s challenging to concisely summarize the sprawling novel – it would work far better, one might say as a miniseries than a film – but the overarching conflict is fairly straightforward: several different townsfolk – each with unique axes to grind – begin posting their enemies’ dirty secrets on the town council’s website, under the “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” pseudonym.
It isn’t really a mystery story, nor is it a drama in the conventional sense. “The Casual Vacancy” can perhaps best be described as a work of literary fiction, one driven by the relationships between characters rather than by plot MacGuffins.
Anyone thinking of picking up “The Casual Vacancy” should be aware that it’s far more “mature” than Rowling’s previous work. There’s a lot of language (which, to be fair, is employed well for characterization purposes), sexual material (though nothing extraordinarily graphic), and an overall cynical tone. It’s worth noting that for the first two-thirds of the book, I really wasn’t enjoying myself. A seeming obsession with the tawdry details of social decay (drug abuse, child neglect, teen drinking and sex, etc.), when coupled with a cast of extraordinarily unsympathetic characters, makes for unpleasant reading.
By the end of the novel, however, Rowling pulls a seemingly disparate series of events into a devastating conclusion. A novel that began as a comedy – albeit a pitch-black one – becomes a grim, thought-provoking tragedy. Even more crucially, this tonal shift is effected gradually, and never feels particularly jarring. Rowling expertly juggles an extraordinarily high number of subplots (more than I’ve seen in any recent mainstream novel) and the payoff is spectacular indeed.
From a literary perspective, Rowling’s prose has generally improved since the last “Potter” book hit shelves. A lyrical flow of creative metaphors, smartly crafted dialogue, and Dickensian descriptions persists throughout the work. Her characters – seedy though they may be – are well drawn and highly memorable. In short, the skills that won her “Potter” series worldwide acclaim and a devoted fanbase still take center stage here.
Somewhat frustrating, however, is Rowling’s persistent tendency to employ midstream viewpoint switching – an obnoxious approach that rises to the level of a genuine authorial flaw. And this isn’t the omniscient narrator of the “Harry Potter” books; this is full-on “head hopping” that constantly shifts back and forth between the thoughts of different characters. It’s distracting and feels self-indulgent. The book (which weighs in at over 500 pages) is perhaps slightly overlong as well.
There’s very little per-se worldview material on display here. Whereas “Harry Potter” appropriated both Christian themes and pagan imagery to form a mythic whole, “The Casual Vacancy” is bluntly realistic. Religion never plays much of a role in characters’ lives; nor indeed, for the most part, do any “higher moral motivations.” Characters are almost universally selfish (though there are occasional flashes of compassion or sympathy) which makes for grinding reading. Insofar as Rowling’s purpose is to satirize the motivations of the self-absorbed, however, it’s an appropriate tactic.
On a slightly different note, those curious about Rowling’s personal views on various social topics will find fresh material here. It’s obvious Rowling favors expanding social services for drug addicts and their families – a welfare-state ideology some American conservatives will no doubt find less-than-palatable, but perhaps understandable in a Britain accustomed to universal health care. Interestingly, sex outside of marriage is almost universally portrayed negatively, as is the tendency of teenagers to alienate themselves from their parents.
So, in the end, it worth reading?
If you loved “Harry Potter” and want more of it, “The Casual Vacancy” will not satisfy your craving. This is a different Rowling, writing within a very different universe. Though astute fans may notice some stylistic similarities, “The Casual Vacancy” wasn’t written for the “Potter” demographic. That being said, however, it’s still a well-written book with strong characters and a great denouement. It’s not mandatory reading for fans of Rowling’s other work, but it’s still worth a look.
It isn’t “Potter,” but Rowling’s adult debut is still impressive.