Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s new adult book The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant and powerful novel that is incredibly difficult to read. Rowling proves in this book what a skillful writer she is. She is able to create characters so complex, so multi-faceted, that it’s hard to remember they aren’t real.
Contrary to what the publisher promised in its promotional materials, The Casual Vacancy is not a “black comedy.” It is a grim, honest, realistic slice of life, populated by troubled, deep, and interesting people. There are a lot of important characters in The Casual Vacancy. It takes determination and patience to learn about each one and keep them straight.
Despite the grim and depressing circumstances outlined for so many of the characters, I could feel myself drawn into the world of Pagford, the small town in England that serves as the book’s setting. It didn’t seem that different in many ways from the city in which I live. The themes are relevant to life in the United States as well as England. Some of the people of Pagford resent the people who live in a place referred to as the Fields. It lies between Pagford and the larger city of Yarvil. Yarvil pays for the provision of many services to the Fields, but Pagford bears part of the burden. To their dismay, this includes allowing children of the Fields to attend their school, which they feared “would be overrun and swamped by the offspring of scroungers, addicts, and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.”
Some of the arguments are depressingly familiar. At one point two characters are discussing whether the addiction clinic does any good, and the subject turns to “principles.”
“Yes, well, principles are sometimes the problem, if you ask me,” said Miles. “Often what’s needed is a bit of common sense.”
“Which is the name people usually give to their prejudices,” rejoined Kat.
Rowling has a great talent for making her readers care for the characters she creates. In this novel, there is no main character. Instead, we are inside the heads of many people through a narrator. Rowling will introduce a character in such a way as to provoke a negative reaction, and then let us see the character’s life from a different standpoint and stir up great sympathy. She first introduces a promiscuous, ignorant, and belligerent girl through the eyes of a teenaged boy and a school administrator; later we see the girl skipping school to clean up her filthy home in desperate hopes of persuading a social worker not to take her little brother from her addict mother. Another teenaged girl is being bullied, and at one point I was reluctant to read ahead because I was afraid the bully would not be the obvious candidate but another character, and I really did not want that other character to be a bully.
The plot is relatively straightforward, but it moves steadily toward a terrific and terrible climax. Even though I wasn’t able to predict what was coming, I felt a mounting sense of dread over the last fifth of the book.
I am not easily moved to tears, but I cried at the end of The Casual Vacancy. I keep thinking about the events in the book and how they could have been changed for the better through action by some of the characters, and I marvel at how I feel real grief. I wonder how the characters are getting on; then I have to remind myself that they aren’t real people. In the end, my sadness is not only for the unfortunate characters in the book but for the many real people whose lives are just as unfortunate. I’m guessing that was one of Rowling’s objectives.
I will not say that I enjoyed this complex and heartbreaking book. It’s too grim and real. But I am very glad that I read it, and I highly recommend The Casual Vacancy to any reader who likes realistic fiction, exceptionally well-drawn characters, and excellent writing.