The world wondered what J.K. Rowling would write in the wake of the Harry Potter phenomenon. She responded with The Casual Vacancy, about as great a departure from the magically engaging boy wizard as one can get. There were many with high expectations going into this novel and I’m sure many were “disappointed,” though perhaps “shocked” would be a better word for it (Rowling shows she is not afraid to use profane language that would probably have gotten students banned from Hogwarts). While the difference in tone, subject matter, and style are initially jarring to anyone so familiar with the series that made her famous, Rowling’s command of these characters along with her management of so many interconnected issues and perspectives, demonstrate her depth and skill as a writer better than the Harry Potter series.
The delicate balance of power in the small town of Pagford is violently upset with the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother. As several citizens vie for the vacant seat on the parish council, their lives and motivations are examined, as well as those of their family and friends. The central issues at stake are the fate of a low-income housing area known as The Fields and an addiction treatment facility, Bellchapel. Delicate maneuvering decades earlier left many in the small town feeling betrayed and resentful. With an open seat and crucial council votes approaching, an opportunity to act on the long festering grudge may be at hand. But even as members of the town consider a move towards the way things were, the realities of modern life refuse to be ignored as the town council’s website and message board become the target of upsetting anonymous posts.
Rowling’s presentation of the town and its citizens is unsettling in an ingenious way. A multitude of voices and perspectives blindside the reader, forcing attention to be paid as the relationships between characters and their places in the town are demonstrated gradually. The reader becomes an outsider who must work for understanding. It is also not easy to latch onto any of the characters. They all have their endearing moments of weakness as well as their thoughts or actions that inspire disgust and disdain.
Setting the politics of the novel aside, what the story really boils down to, at least, for me, is interpersonal relationships, primarily those between parents and their children. Though the chasm between the handful of teenagers and their equally self-involved parents is obvious, Rowling shows that with age and maturity, those relationships don’t necessarily change. The way that she is able to demonstrate the pervasive inability and/or reluctance to communicate, to sympathize, to admit the truth, is incredible. It is both enlightening and depressing which only goes to show how realistic her writing and genuine her insights are. The tragedy of The Casual Vacancy is that those who are held accountable aren’t always the only ones involved in events that transpire. Everyone is, in his or her own way, accountable and people are defined by how and whether or not they take responsibility.
A controversial follow up to the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy can be harder to immerse yourself in initially, but is brutally honest in the depth to which it captures modern issues and modern living, marking definitively that Rowling can leave the fantasy world behind when reality needs to be confronted.