I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel The Casual Vacancy, but I was immediately grabbed by Rowlings’ funny, punchy style. Her arrangement of a complex web of plots and characters kept me entertained for the whole 500 pages and it was the perfect book to devour over one rainy weekend.
Set in idyllic Pagford, the story opens with the swift death-by-brain-aneurism of Barry Fairbrother, beloved chairman of the Pagford church council. The town is divided as candidates race to fill the much coveted seat. On the surface, Pagford is a gentle and scenic village where everyone knows everyone. But this facade barely conceals a culture of back-stabbing, prejudice and secrets. Teenagers suffer and sin, unnoticed by their parents who are distracted by failing marriages, futile relationships, private obsessions with boy bands, the fate of the empty council seat and somebody who is hacking into the council website and defaming aspiring chairpersons in spectacular fashion.
Pagford is populated with a diverse cast of vivid, cartoonish characters, whose treachery and tragedy made me cackle. I loved how the use of a shifting, third person perspective gave the book an intimate and psychological feeling and really got to the core of each character’s motivations. Rowling has a gift when it comes to putting herself in other people’s heads.
Disappointingly, Rowling is not so gifted at putting herself in other people’s shoes; the representation of the “lower class” was reductive, and looks bad when penned by the world’s richest author. The characters from the poor housing estate have their accent spelled out phonetically, “I’m washin’ my’ ands of yeh. I’ve ‘ad enough Teri, I’ve ‘ad it.” While the other, more affluent characters don’t have this treatment, even though they have accents too.
Rowling kind of redeems herself by exploring the issues of addiction and systematic poverty in a meaningful way, encouraging understanding from the reader toward some pretty unlikable characters. But overall, poor characters in The Casual Vacancy were less considered and detailed than middle-class characters. They were simplified and whittled down to blunt representations of class.
I can understand some of the unfavorable views about this book. If you’re into complex language and delicate prose, you may find the style plain. There are no spells, broomsticks, and fantasy like in Harry Potter, but there are similarly colorful characters – real life Snapes and Moaning Myrtles. And if you don’t like misery, maybe stick to Rowling’s earlier work.
Personally, I never got the Harry Potter hype (sorry!) and sometimes I just want to read something that is the literary equivalent to binge watching – compelling and not hard work. The Casual Vacancy was all of these things. And to be blunt, I am a bit miserable, so it was nourishing to read about the struggles, failures, and triumphs of others.
The Casual Vacancy is no linguistic masterpiece however, it is a gripping piece of storytelling that deals with some ambitious themes – judgement, happiness, the fragility of life and the indiscriminate nature of death. But maybe all of that is less important than the way it made me feel on Sunday night; sad to turn the last page and finish it.