When news got out earlier this year that J.K. Rowling, most famous for writing the Harry Potter series, was writing a novel for adults, there was a very mixed reaction amongst the readers I knew and was friends with. Some readers of my acquaintance were dismissive, thinking that only the “Rowling stans,” to quote one of them, would want to pick it up – though this was someone who wasn’t a fan of the Harry Potter books, so I suppose said person doesn’t quite count. As for myself and those closest to me, we were more than happy to read Rowling’s latest, though this happiness was tempered by varying levels of caution, more so when news got out that it wasn’t going to be fantasy. While I’ve always admired any writer who wants to expand his or her repertoire, not a lot of them are very good at actually making the jump into something else entirely, especially if said writer is going from speculative fiction to “mainstream” fiction, for lack of a better term.
It was because of this caution that I took my time acquiring a copy of Casual Vacancy. I wanted to know what my other friends, who had pre-ordered the novel, thought about it before I got my own copy. When the news came back very positive, I decided that it was about time I got my own to read, and was very pleased with what I had read. It proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Rowling has breadth and is not resting on her laurels as the writer of Harry Potter.
Casual Vacancy is about the death of Barry Fairbrother, an important member on the town council of Pagford. His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the council, which therefore needs to be filled. In the run-up to the election, the true natures of various people are revealed, and it’s made clear that not everyone in Pagford is quite who they seem to be. Everyone is hiding a secret, and all those secrets eventually come out into the open – sometimes with disastrous results. All of this makes for a story that is incredibly realistic and fraught with tragedy and heartbreak. There is class prejudice and racism; there is rape and drug abuse; there is disrespect and swearing and all sorts of things that did not appear in the Harry Potter books. But there is a reason for them being there, and anyone who reads it with the appropriate frame of mind will come to appreciate what Rowling has done.
This, I think, is where a lot of readers run into problems, if their reviews are anything to go by. The first thing readers need to remember, before they go into this book, is that it is not Harry Potter at all. Readers who go into it thinking that everything will be sunshine and butterflies will be in for a severe disappointment, and may find themselves disliking this novel for all the wrong reasons. As is so often the case, much of the enjoyment of a novel comes from entering into it with the right expectations, and since I did not go into this thinking it would be like Harry Potter, I found myself well and truly pleased with it. I have read other reviews by people who walked into it thinking it’d be close to Rowling’s blockbuster series, and have walked away disappointed, or did not even finish it at all. This, I think, is entirely unfair to Rowling, who has created a relatively accurate portrayal of a small town that pretends to be perfect while struggling to hide all its festering evils. In many ways, it might be said that Casual Vacancy is the antithesis to Harry Potter: solidly grounded in reality, not only in terms of the lack of magic, but also in terms of that lack of genuinely “good people.” Everybody in Pagford hides his or her own wicked secret, and all of it is revealed in the run-up to the elections and sometime after.
It is this gradual revelation of everybody’s most tragic and most hidden secrets that, I think, is the best thing about the novel. There are many characters caught up in the mess after Barry Fairbrother’s death, and all of them are carefully built up in the first half of the novel. This part takes a while; Rowling is careful to construct the characters, make them comprehensible, if not relatable, to her readers without the luxury of a sequel in which to further build them up. This is something I find gratifying, since it shows Rowling is capable of creating complete characters within the span of one book, even it if does take half the book for her to do it and thus making the book feel rather slow to start. I do not mind this in the least, however, because getting to know the characters is crucial for when everything finally picks up in the second half of the book, which is pretty much an emotional roller coaster ride until the end.
Now that I speak of the characters, I hesitate to say that I love any of them – and that is a very good thing. To love a character tends to be a straightforward thing, and something that’s easy to do, but the characters in Casual Vacancy cannot be said to be straightforward lovable at any point in time. The emotional reaction the reader has to them is far more nuanced, automatically colored by the reader’s own opinions, politics, and personal life. The reader will likely find herself or himself drawn to a handful of characters, but would hesitate to say if she or he “loves” the character or characters she or he is drawn to.
As for myself, it would be easier to say that I pity characters, and I do pity a lot of them: Krystal Weedon, Sukhvinder Jawanda, and Tessa Walls, to name just a few. As for hate, there’s only one whom I truly hate to the bottom of my soul (Simon Price, who I hoped would get shot or stabbed or die an equally violent death at some point in the course of the novel, though of course he didn’t), while for the rest I feel dislike in varying degrees. The reason I hate Simon Price is because he is an abusive father and husband, not to mention a thief, and at no point in time is it explained why he is like that. He just is, because people like him just are sometimes. If there had been some sort of explanation for why he was the way he was, I might have moved him from the “hate” category to the “dislike” category – or I might not have. There’s no excuse for being abusive, so I like to believe.
It is obvious, of course, that none of these characters are like the ones in Harry Potter. There is no clear Voldemort, no clear Harry, no clear Hermione or Ron or Malfoy or McGonagall – and that’s the point. Rowling has stated that this is an “adult” novel, and I believe this is a reference not only to the gritty content, but also to the way it depicts reality. While I do not doubt there are a lot of precocious children and young adults who would appreciate Casual Vacancy as is, it usually takes being an adult and having some experience of the world to know that there is no such thing as black and white when it comes to the world and living in it. More often than not characters are both good and evil at the same time; more often than not hope rises only to be extinguished; more often than not we wish for something but never get it. The characters of Casual Vacancy, and the things that happen to them, show the grayness of life very clearly: some of them get what they want but not quite; some of them never get what they want but instead get something they did not expect; and – as is often the case – they think they have what they want when in truth they’re just settling for second-best, and while some of them are aware of that, there are a good number of characters who aren’t.
One other thing that Casual Vacancy is not, aside from not being Harry Potter, is a murder mystery. Some people read it thinking it’s a mystery of some sort, in the same vein as Agatha Christie or numerous British country-house murder mysteries. I suppose it’s easy to make that assumption, given the setting, but I think after the first three chapters it’s quite clear that this is no murder mystery. After all, it’s made quite obvious that Barry Fairbrother really did die of a stroke, which means the rest of the novel isn’t going to be about finding out who killed him. As I mentioned earlier, this novel is about the a small town and all its festering evils, which come boiling up to the surface with Barry Fairbrother’s death. The plot circles around the characters and showing what makes them – and the town they all live in – tick. In truth, there isn’t really much of a plot – this novel is about the characters and showing how they interact with each other, and with themselves, peeling away the walls and layers they hide behind to show the truth of them, in all their shame and complexity.
Overall, Casual Vacancy is a masterstroke: as far away from Rowling’s Harry Potter series as she can get, but still displaying her prowess as a writer and showcasing her ability for breadth in terms of what she can write. It is a powerful character study of a small town’s residents, showing them not as archetypes but as living, breathing human beings, with complexities and nuances that the reader will find amusing, disturbing, and troubling, all at once. There are no heroes here, and there are no villains: there are only people – and that is the beauty of it.