'The Casual Vacancy' by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling's first book with no boy wizard is about as far away from Hogwarts as you can get.

Regardless of what J.K. Rowling writes in her lifetime, readers, writers, and critics alike will debate whether it measures up to the expectations set by Harry Potter. The standard is not without merit: Rowling’s stories of the teenage wizard launched her from struggling single parent to elusive philanthropic millionaire in a few years. To date, over 450 million copies have been sold worldwide in 73 languages, and its films became the highest grossing series of all time. To frame it another way: Rowling is the only author whose first book inspired a Universal theme park. It’s unlikely, if not impossible, that readers could expect her to top that.

Enter The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s first adult novel. As far as why she wrote it, I hypothesize two reasons: first, to demonstrate that Harry Potter is no Sherlock Holmes, subject to future conjuring at the public’s demand. This book is the antithesis of it, and it’s safe to say that ship has sailed. Second, Rowling wanted to prove that she is still passionate about writing (and, with millions of fans, they will read it.)

These two veins of thought run throughout The Casual Vacancy, which must have felt liberating for Rowling to write, lacking the censor of Young Adult fiction, bringing us to the first dramatic difference from the world of Hogwarts. There is a significant quantity of objectionable material that will astonish many readers. A word of warning: we’re talking the modern equivalent of those obscure Old Testament passages your Sunday School teacher never covered: bullying, drugs, language, rape, drunkenness (the list goes on). Additionally, Rowling’s use of adult language blazes throughout the book, as if to burn any bridges to the YA market she may have maintained.

Content aside, Rowling has crafted a setting and plot to explore the motivations of a wide cast of actors. Set in the fictional British village of Pagford and its rural community, the death of council member Barry Fairbrother has created a power vacuum. At stake: his influential seat, the fate of a controversial lower-class housing development called The Fields, and a drug rehabilitation clinic. As the story progresses, underlying issues arise—the town must choose what their values are, and live with the consequences. It’s not an thrilling premise, but Rowling creates sufficient social tension to keep the plot moving by interweaving character point-of-views within chapters.

This shifting perspective is both useful and challenging. With seven households and over twenty major characters, readers must be patient for the beginning, which can be disorienting (for fellow readers who feel overwhelmed, there’s a helpful guide posted here2). However, Rowling smoothly transitions between each, and the threads eventually come together into a literary tapestry that is satisfying and worth the patience. A major strength of Vacancy is in the way it frames the town’s social issues in context through many different perspectives. We see why characters are motivated to do what they do, even if we are meant not to like them. Therefore the reader grows a sympathy for each of Rowling’s fallible characters.

As in the Harry Potter books, the best developed personalities are the teenagers, rather than the adults (who dominate the plot). With a few of the most memorable individuals being: Stuart “Fats” Wall, rebellious youth reminiscent of Holden Caufeld, in search of authenticity and meaning; Andrew “Arf” Price, his acne-inflicted friend, who seeks both the romantic attention of classmate Gaia and ways to prevent his father from embarrassing the family; and Krystal Weedon, the vulnerable victim of traumatic upbringing, who will do whatever it takes to protect her brother and keep her family together

It is here, with the discussion of character, that we see another divergence from Rowling’s previous works. While Harry Potter is an uplifting read, in that Harry and his friends make mistakes but often do selfless and commendable things, Casual Vacancy serves as its grim earthly antithesis. Heroes and villains are absent, and though most characters are rich and relatable, none are enriching or likable. Parents verbally and physically abuse their children, children betray their parents, coworkers distrust their peers. Gossip is rampant, as is sexual misconduct and drug use.

This leads me to my biggest difference with The Casual Vacancy (though it’s philosophical rather than technical). I believe these anti-heroes constitute a deliberate reflection of the author’s worldview and perhaps semi-autobiographical account of her own upbringing. This is understandable, and yet I yearned for just one character to stand up and make a good choice (or at least try to), for the right reasons. Perhaps this was intentional, so that Rowling’s readers would feel troubled not with the human condition but rather each characters’ helplessness against it.

While Vacancy reflects an observation of human behavior without hope, the Bible offers an alternative: a savior who empowers us to overcome human frailty in a world of sin.

Ultimately, The Casual Vacancy is better described in what it is not. First, and foremost, it’s not your children’s Harry Potter. This book is very clearly intended for strictly mature audiences. Second, while the book has its humorous moments, it is not a lighthearted read, but rather a modern tragedy, and a well-crafted one at that. Finally, it is not a “feel-good” moral story. In truth, the book is more a cautionary tale of Charles Dickens or Jane Austen’s social class, minus the content filter.

I admire J.K. Rowling’s bravery and courage to be authentic in a way that reaffirms my faith and hope that extends beyond this broken world. Altogether, The Casual Vacancy is extremely ambitious, and it accomplishes what it sets out to do: demonstrate that the days of Harry Potter are gone, and prove that Rowling can still create a congruent plot with memorable characters and an unforgettable ending.

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