When I saw The Casual Vacancy for sale at Target, I didn’t think twice. I threw it in my cart on top of the diapers and Halloween candy.
I love the Harry Potter series. I love J.K. Rowling’s writing, as overblown as it can be. I love her characters, even the bad guys. I love her mythology — English welfare single mom scrapes by and writes novel in cafes, is now richer than The Queen.
And, I really liked The Casual Vacancy, Rowling’s quote-unquote adult novel.
In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling creates sympathetic, yet realistic, characters. The Casual Vacancy is chock full of not-so-lovely people, some of whom I found myself rooting for. She tells a story about these people in such a way that I wanted to find out what happened to them.
Our characters, many of whom are teens, are, on the surface, speaking in literary terms, anti-heroes rather than protagonists. The pretentious Fats, the long-suffering Sukhvinder, the trashy Krystal Wheedon, the victimized Andrew. The adults aren’t much more appealing — again, on the surface. As the plot unfolds, and characters develop, they become more (or less) sympathetic, and we start to glimpse the possibility of redemption for some of them.
The thing about the Casual Vacancy that Harry Potter fans may not like is that it’s not a simple story. It’s not good versus evil, love conquers all. At its center is not a poorly-treated orphan boy, The Boy Who Lived. As a matter of fact, at the center of The Casual Vacancy is The Man Who Died, and how his absence reverberates through the small English community of which he was a part.
And that’s the other thing about The Casual Vacancy: It is, to coin a phrase, based in gritty realism. It shows a side of British culture that we, as Americans, may not be accustomed to seeing. Great Britain isn’t all royalty, beefeaters, lovely accents, and Colin Firth. This is the Great Britain that was J.K. Rowling’s world before the success of Harry Potter: poverty and its attendant miseries, small town small-mindedness.
Rowling doesn’t shy away from sex, death, addiction, self-delusion, abuse, pride or prejudice. It’s not sordid gratuitousness; her writing feels, to me, authentic and sincere. Maybe it’s the matter-of-factness of it that keeps it grounded. It reads to me without pretension or exaggeration.
A friend of mine once posited that Rowling needs a ruthless editor. The Casual Vacancy will not disabuse her of that notion. The first time we follow Fats Wall on his stroll through Pagford is ample proof of that.
Additionally, as I mentioned, many of the characters in this story are teens — just as in the Harry Potter series. Sukhvinder may be the only sympathetic teen. There is a *ton* of teen angst, and not the amusing sort that Harry Potter characters suffer (maybe the angst was just as annoying, but as the HP characters are more sympathetic, it made it more bearable). I sprained my eyeballs rolling them when I read Fats’ thoughts about authenticity and inauthenticity.
If there’s a fault with the book, it’s that it is so very humorless. Humor in the dark is something that Rowling did successfully in the HP series, and I wish she had invested some of that here.
Ultimately, though, I found The Casual Vacancy to be a compelling read, and I would recommend it.