As I read the opening pages of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy,” I felt the onset of an all-too-rare pleasure: the joy of being placed in the hands of a trusted storyteller, an artist with a proven voice. With so much pre-release emphasis placed on the book’s status as a “novel for adults” (whatever that means), I had prepared myself for “The Casual Vacancy” to be written by a J.K. Rowling very different from the author who so beautifully crafted the “Harry Potter” series.
Yet, despite a shift in subject matter and vocabulary (be ready for a different variety of curses), the voice behind “The Casual Vacancy” is very much the Rowling that millions love worldwide. Why, then, won’t “The Casual Vacancy” be equally–or even comparably–adored? Put simply, the novel is too grim for such reception. To the media’s morbid delight, “The Casual Vacancy” boasts an abundance of depressing topics ripe for sensationalizing: death, rape, and drug use, among others.
In listing these subjects, stripped of any context, many an article has implied that Rowling’s goal is merely to shock the world with her raciness–a ridiculous accusation that belittles the significant literary achievement “The Casual Vacancy” represents. With “The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling has masterfully crafted an authentic cross-section of modern society, critiqued with her familiar wit, that ultimately affirms the potential of humanity while capturing its many depravities.
The novel is set in the small English town of Pagford, home to a stuffy, gossipy community of people who revel in their middle class status and view the parish council as more important than Her Majesty’s Government. When an empty seat (that is, a “casual vacancy”) arises on the council, Pagford is, naturally, set astir. This eponymous vacancy is created by the death of Barry Fairbrother, quickly revealed to have been one of the town’s more honorable residents. Fairbrother’s political agenda at the time of his death focused on the continued support of the Fields, a housing project on the outskirts of Pagford that the town’s more conservative residents despise. Upon the news of Fairbrother’s death (the knowledge of which is humorously treated as a source of immense social capital), the project’s opposition scrambles to take advantage.
The political and social impact of Fairbrother’s death is felt throughout Pagford and Rowling deftly weaves between the perspectives of over twenty diverse characters as they react to the local tragedy. Rowling’s prowess with characterization is on full display here; “The Casual Vacancy” has an extensive cast of fully-drawn characters, each offering its own distinct pleasures and horrors. Indeed, the most showily impressive feat of “The Casual Vacancy” is Rowling’s ability to seamlessly switch between each character’s consciousness. The novel’s most satisfying passages are those in which Rowling maneuvers multiple characters into one place and floats between each point of view.
Rowling’s prose throughout “The Casual Vacancy” retains the familiar touches of Dickens and Dahl while adding a bit of Franzen to the mix as she shrewdly deconstructs her character’s flaws. The vast majority of the characters in “The Casual Vacancy” are reprehensible in one way or another, but the maternal compassion that defines Rowling’s voice keeps her from seeming overly abusive. That she maintains some degree of affection, however faint, for each of her characters adds to the novel’s compulsive readability.
“The Casual Vacancy” is indeed a page-turner–quite an accomplishment given the emotional demands each unread page threatens. Had Rowling maintained the levity that marked her descriptions of “Harry Potter’s” comically detestable characters, “The Casual Vacancy” would be much easier to like. Instead, she does something more daring by allowing the black comedy to venture into detailed descriptions of society’s harsh realities. While likely too dark for many readers’ taste, this choice is vital to the success of “The Casual Vacancy” as something more than the usual comedy of manners. (It also sheds light on Rowling’s deliberate restraint with Harry and his friends; her descriptions of teenage sexuality in “The Casual Vacancy” are startlingly authentic.) That Rowling occasionally strays too far into soap opera, particularly with the novel’s climax, is a forgivable byproduct of her lofty ambitions.
“The Casual Vacancy” will likely please many readers, but disappoint many more. For my part, Rowling’s new novel proved far more satisfying than anything previously recommended to me on the basis of my love for “Harry Potter.” With “The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling has yet again captured something true and resonant, making the wait for her next effort all the more bittersweet. Grade: A-