The Casual Vacancy: It’s A Far Cry From Harry Potter
I read the first book in the Harry Potter series when I was 11 and the last when I was 18. When the final movie in the series came out last year, it felt odd that for the first time in over a decade I had no more Harry Potter to look forward to. So when J.K. Rowling released her new novel, The Casual Vacancy, it felt like the next best thing.
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The book begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, an admired resident in his small town of Pagford and a member of the Parish Council. The story then scatters in what feels like dozens of different directions as we follow the lives of Barry’s family, friends, and rivals as they cope with his loss and vie for his seat in the Parish council. At first, it’s difficult to remember how the characters are connected to one another, and since we only learn about them in snippets it can take time to feel invested in each character’s plotline.
With this book, I think Rowling took two major risks. The first and most obvious one is that she changed her audience from children (and adults who began reading her books as children) to adults. In every description I read of the book, there was an emphasis on how this would be Rowling’s first novel for adults. While I had been expecting a more adult subject matter, the book was still a lot grittier than I imagined it would be. There are instances of domestic abuse, self-harm, and even rape. Though at first I wondered if the only reason Rowling included these scenes was to prove she could write about darker topics, when I was deeper into the story I realized that they did all have a purpose. One of the overarching storylines deals with the Parish Council’s intention of ridding Pagford of The Fields, a poor neighborhood at the edge of town. The council members use their wealth and social standing to distance themselves from The Fields, but the book exposes the seedy underbelly of Pagford, revealing that the seemingly-idyllic town may be no better than the downtrodden neighborhood it detests.
The second risk is writing a character-driven book rather than an action-driven book. Sure, we all love Harry, Hermione, and Ron, but the bulk of the Harry Potter series dealt with chronicling their adventures, not their personalities, motivations, and fears. For the most part, what the characters do in The Casual Vacancy isn’t exciting; they’re just carrying on with their lives in the aftermath of a death in the town. The meat of the book is in how the characters think and feel, and how they interact with each other. Much like the book strips Pagford’s veneer of being better than The Fields, by the end of the book we also know what makes even the most uptight and aloof of the characters crack. By the end of the book, the only character that hasn’t revealed a darker side is Barry Fairbrother, and that’s because we mainly see him through the lens of fond memories.
When Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series, she was both praised and criticized for Hermione’s role in the series, with some feeling that she was a great feminist role model and others feeling that having her as a sidekick was not enough. There is no shortage of female characters in The Casual Vacancy, but the focus of the book is not to create strong female (or male) characters. It is to document their downward spirals. However, the women’s story lines do seem to hinge on their relationships with their partners and children more. There’s Shirley Mollison, who rejoices whenever her husband’s political opponents are slandered but snaps when the tables are turned. And Tessa Wall, who is losing patience with her husband’s OCD and her son’s rebellious streak. The men, on the other hand, are focused on their political ambitions and personal demons. Shirley’s husband, Howard, leads the Parish Council in their ambition to rid Pagford of The Fields; Tessa’s husband, Colin, is determined to take over Barry’s seat in the Parish Council and continue Barry’s advocacy of The Fields.
All in all, I enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy. Like I said, initially it may be difficult to read since there are so many different plotlines and we only know bits and pieces of each character’s lives, struggles, and personalities at the start. But eventually, I did become interested in each character as they were developed more. As far as Rowling’s career in adult literature, I would say the verdict is still out. The Casual Vacancy is selling well, but I think that is to be expected of Rowling’s first novel after the Harry Potter series since all of us now-adult fans rushed to buy it. I think her second book will be the true test. Then, readers will be more likely to seek out the book because they enjoyed her writing style in the genre than to calm their residual Potter fever.
Have you read The Casual Vacancy? Feel free to share your thoughts and reviews in the comments.
Written by Sully Moreno
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