Sometimes you really understand a cliché. Reading J. K. Rowling’s first post-Potter and first adult book is like watching a train wreck—but not in the way that you are probably suspecting.
The Casual Vacancy was received with very mixed reviews but more often than not I heard responses that were at best lukewarm and at their worst negatively incendiary, so I was not greatly moved to read it, not wanting to blemish my already waning love of the author with a less than worthwhile book.
The Casual Vacancy exceeded my expectations. Rowling’s style—which I have with older eyes recognized as not spectacular—is still visible in places (though I doubt I’d have been able to recognize it as hers if she had written beneath a pseudonym). I was, however, impressed and somewhat justified by Rowling’s handling of adult subject matter (—justified as a member of fandom and an adherent to some fanon, which is often darker than the middle-grade readers of Harry Potter ought perhaps to be exposed to, Rowling’s recognition of the possibility and existence of these darker realities seems to make possible for her YA world some of the ideas that adults fans have tried to impose upon it). Here we find drug abuse, poverty, workaholism, picket-fence-syndrome1, domestic violence, mental illness, teen angst (we all grumbled at Harry’s nosedive into angst during book 5, but Harry never achieved anything near the angst of Fats Wall or Sukhvinder Jawanda), self-harm, prostitution, rape…. What I mean to say is that this book is only lacking in rock ‘n’ roll, and it would complete the gamut of subjects unsuitable for children.
Rowling’s ability to play on either side of the Age Line has propelled her back towards a spot among my favorite authors. And speaking of Age Lines, can we give her a round of applause for mastering both the child and the adult POV in a single story? Though I would say here that she more clearly captures humanity. All characters speak with a rather accurate childlikeness. The children are just more aware of authority figures above them whether these authority figures are respected, feared, or despised.
I have always admired Rowling’s ability to handle a large cast. Here, I feel as if with her multiple close third person perspectives, she actually handled this less well than she did in Harry Potter. In Harry Potter, I always had the sense of every character having a complex back story and emotions of his or her own but I had Harry’s perspective to fall back upon for solidity. Without a grounding character, the back stories and emotions are all manifest in The Casual Vacancy, and the characters are made to seem more complex, but it is also more difficult to grasp the whirl of skirts and suits as I am offered varying and sometimes conflicting ideas of each character in rapid succession. Multiple readings might help to solidify these characters and make each more visible, but I somewhat doubt that I will readily reach for The Casual Vacancy again, suffering as I do from an acute desire for escapism in place of realism.
Perhaps what can be said of both books and both worlds is that Rowling brings to each a stark realism but that we would rather believe in and escape to a world where magic, prophecy, and good-versus-evil battle can often cast a veneer over the darker aspects of socially acceptable prejudice and racism and enslavement than the one of Casual Vacancy that strips away the veneer and leaves us stranded nearer home and seeing even more of the darkness of humanity.
The Casual Vacancy is largely character-based, so I really have very little to say about the plot.
1A colloquialism that I’m here defining as the unrelenting desire for perfection or the appearance of perfection sought after to the detriment of self or others or morality.
Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2012.
This review is not endorsed by J. K. Rowling, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.