If you are still charmed by the illustrious success of the “Harry Potter,” series, it’s time to draw your attention away from portrayals of good vs. evil in a magically enhanced world. Rowling’s first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” reflects on the tragedies of a traditional, unassuming English town called Pagford. When the Parish Councilor Barry Fairbrother dies of an unexpected aneurism, the citizens show their true colors when reacting to the town’s tragic loss.
After Fairbrother’s death, the town scrambles to replace his seat on the Parish Council. Pagford’s major concern is the annexation or inclusion of a ghetto near city limits. The citizens are divided primarily by generational gaps, the older generation wanting to preserve tradition and the younger adults aiming to further Fairbrother’s attempts to embrace change. Through the political proceedings, relationships end, rivalries erupt and secrets are broadcasted, tearing apart Pagford from the inside. News of dramatic events spread like a virus. Do you ever get sick satisfaction from revealing shocking information? Chances are likely. The exchange of gossip throughout the small town of Pagford spreads like wildfire, escalating to chaos throughout the novel.
Rowling is at her best when she is building worlds. Pagford feels just as real and tangible as Hogwarts, though maybe not as desirable. Her depiction of small-town politics and the grimy underbelly of society are honest, but at times repulsive. Rowling introduces her narration of illicit behaviors in “The Casual Vacancy,” including detailed descriptions of sexual encounters, self-harm, rape, attempted murder and even accidental death. The result is a little heavy and hard to swallow, because at times the novel feels like it jumps from crisis to crisis without relief for the reader.
Additionally, the novel lacks a steady progression to the climax. The beginning starts too slow and all of the conflicts come to focus within a hundred pages of each other. However, the end of the novel is intense and scary, leaving the story unforgettable.
The characters are multi-dimensional, and the novel is, in essence, a character study. You may find it difficult to set apart the honorable characters from the rest. Rowling switches perspectives in each section of the novel, giving you a comprehensive look at how each character judges the citizens and issues of Pagford. Several characters don’t realize the consequences of their actions until it’s to late to repair the damage.
Despite the multidimensionality of these characters, some still fall flat. It’s clear that Rowling has a deep emotional connection to each character, and all of them serve a purpose in the story, but the character development is unbalanced. Readers will not find every character interesting; many characters come off as evil or petty. However, readers will be sure to find at least one character that they connect with, and may even see a bit of themselves in that character’s flaws.
Rowling has received substantial criticism from readers who judge “The Casual Vacancy” against the Harry Potter series. This approach, however, is narrow-minded and it is inappropriate to expect Rowling to follow the same formula. There’s no question that the Harry Potter series is what Rowling will be remembered for, but as a literary figure, she must compose works like “The Casual Vacancy” to experiment as a writer.