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Book Review: "The Casual Vacancy"

Judy L. Wang |
October 10, 2012 | 6:32 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter


J.K Rowling's debut adult novel, "The Casual Vacancy" (Hachette Book Group)
J.K Rowling's debut adult novel, "The Casual Vacancy" (Hachette Book Group)
For those of us who can measure our early childhood years by the seven “Harry Potter” novels, it might seem a bit shocking that J.K. Rowling could move on so quickly from the series, as just shortly after the seventh Potter book was published she began conceptualizing and writing “The Casual Vacancy.” 

However, for fans that are still reeling from nostalgia after the Potter films concluded, do not expect relief from her latest adult novel. “The Casual Vacancy” is a completely other kind of book that substitutes witchcraft and wizardry with the harsh reality of a life with which many more of us can relate. 

It would probably make most us much more comfortable if Rowling just never wrote another book as even she would concede that nothing can top the multi-million-dollar series she created. What we all as readers need to do is approach “The Casual Vacancy” as a novel without a mega successful predecessor. Stripped of all the cheeky Potter comparisons, Rowling’s new book essentially reassures us that the creative genius that brought us “the boy who lived” was no fluke. 

The novel begins with a death: Councilmember Barry Fairbrother collapsed and died while on his way to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife Mary. His death rocks the tiny town of Pagford and serves as the starting point for the unraveling of its deceivingly close-knit inhabitants. 

As it turns out, Fairbrother’s death is more exciting than it is tragic for those citizens that are eager to fill the “casual vacancy” left by the deceased on the city council board. With tensions rising between the little town of Pagford and its dreaded neighboring city over the hill, Yarvil, the vacancy is a powerful position for change and everyone feels entitled to a piece of it. 

“The Casual Vacancy” highlights many of Rowling’s writing talents, one being her ability to create tangible, three-dimensional characters. The inhabitants of Pagford are complex and layered: there’s Krystal, the overtly sexual troublemaker with a prostitute druggie mother; Simon, the abusive father who shouts “Pauline’s got her fucking period again” to his nosebleed prone son, Paul; and Kay, the single mother who uprooted her daughter Gaia to Pagford in order to chase after her boyfriend who has obvious commitment issues.  

Rowling is incredibly thoughtful and intricate about developing her characters. In each of them you find something deplorable, yet they each beg for your forgiveness. As you learn more and more about the residents of Pagford, you get a look into the incubator lifestyle that develops in a small town. Their obession over a blip in the town's borders has ironically become a physical representation of their boiling hatred and judgment. 

The only downside to the book is there are too many personalities to follow. A large part of the first half of the novel is dedicated to introducing characters and then as the story slowly unfolds Rowling scatters clues about how the characters are related to each other. It can be hard to follow especially since each chapter alternates between the perspectives of the different Pagford citizens.  

Also, too many characters gives the novel a very slow start. The book does not pick up until just a little over half way through which makes the first half feel like a bit of a confusing drag. This is characteristic of Rowling going back to her Potter days: she is a steady, patient writer who likes to casually sprinkle plot secrets and then go for the big bang all at the end, leaving the initial impression a bit wanting. 

The novel can seem a bit scattered, but it still keeps your interest. At the end you are not quite sure what you read, but you are strangely glad you did. It is a surprising adult novel debut and some parts can seem a bit uncomfortable only if you cling to Rowling as the Potter writer and not “The Casual Vacancy” writer.

In the end, Rowling delivers a compelling novel with hints of her "Harry Potter" style, but it might take a bit of a commitment to get through the beginning. 


Reach Staff Reporter Judy L. Wang here or follow her on Twitter



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