J.K. Rowling’s new(ish) book, The Casual Vacancy, is about what happens when one small cog in a small town is abruptly and unexpectedly removed. In this case, a councilman, Barry Fairbrother, dies suddenly, which leads to over five hundred pages of fallout, culminating in dishonor, job loss, and death, among other tragedies.
This book moves more slowly than the famous Harry Potter series, but I think that’s because it’s geared toward a different audience: The Harry Potter books were written for children and young adults, who require frequent action scenes, regular reiteration of the story to remind the reader of what’s happening (essentially dragging the reader through the story so they understand it), and quick movement from one thing to the next. The Casual Vacancy moves back and forth and around in circles from one storyline to the next and back again, each time including something from other stories to keep the characters and their actions connected.
It works and it’s not condescending. I didn’t feel like a children’s author was attempting to write for adults. She proved, to me at least, that while she can write children’s and young adult well enough to make a mint, she can also do grisly adult writing and storytelling. I don’t know, though, whether, if this had been her first attempt to publish, if it would have been as successful as it has. It’s good, but it needed the Harry Potter springboard to put her in the reading public’s mind as a writer worth reading (and reading and reading for hundreds of pages).
There were times, however, that it felt a little like she was trying too hard. The potty mouth, as the Harry Potter audience would call it, sometimes felt forced, like she was trying to remind the reader that this is an adult story, that it is most certainly NOT Harry Potter (it is definitely NOT Harry Potter). The content is also sometimes a bit much. Rowling discusses things that don’t even seem to exist in Potterland, such as sex, drugs, murder, hate, cuckolding, local budgets, rich-vs-poor battles, self-righteousness, and other decidedly adult attributes of life, but sometimes it feels forced, like she’s trying to get out everything now that she wasn’t allowed to do for over ten years with Potter.
If that’s its mission, even in small part, it succeeds. While Rowling’s voice is clear and is unquestionably the same voice that told the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Vacancy is decidedly different. It’s sharper, more to the point, and assumes the reader is adult.
What the novel does best is call out and clearly articulate those things in us, those unspoken (even in our own heads) motives and thoughts that pop up especially in small town social and legislative politics. It made me uncomfortable to read in this book from halfway around the world those things that have gone through my own mind, but which I have not articulated, and of which I am ashamed: Who knew what first, who told whom first, who was there and feels special for having been there, knowledge of the personal lives of others gained (at least somewhat) dishonestly, and general nagging fear that your community knows all of this about you. Rowling has drawn a brilliant, accurate (though overly concentrated and distilled, as opposed to reality, but done so for the purposes of tighter storytelling) picture of what happens in a small community in the wake of tragedy and change.
The Casual Vacancy is worth reading for fans of Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and for those who aren’t as familiar with her previous series. However, I don’t know that I would read sequels to this one, or if I would read another of her adult-themed books. I’d like to see her tackle something else now, because I’m sure she can do it.
Here are some links to other thoughts on the book: