When news hit that J.K. Rowling was writing a new novel, her fan base anticipated literary magic. But Rowling, eager to explore her capacities beyond children’s fiction, set out to distance herself from Harry Potter; she insisted that her new book was written for an adult audience, not Potterheads. In that respect, she succeeded. “The Casual Vacancy” is not Harry Potter. It is raw, gritty and grounded firmly in realism. It is also pretty darn depressing.
Once parish councilor Barry Fairbrother suddenly dies of an aneurysm, the suburban town of Pragford is turned upside-down. The novel follows the subsequent aftermath of Fairbrother’s death, which causes a volatile election within the town’s local government and a slow breakdown of the tenuous relationships among the townspeople. The narrative flips between the perspectives of countless major characters: Howard, a morbidly obese deli owner; Gavin, Fairbrother’s miserable best friend; Kay, an oblivious social worker; Krystal, who would be described as “ratchet” by American teens; Fats, a self-interested adolescent; Andrew, an abused teenager and a smattering of gossiping wives.
“The Casual Vacancy” is classified as a tragicomedy, and with good reason. While Rowling’s dry humor brightens up the narrative at certain points, the book is largely about the tragically self-destructive nature of secrets, lies and miscommunication. It lacks a central conflict; the town’s election to fill Fairbrother’s seat on the council moves the story along, but the reader’s attention is primarily focused on the nefarious actions of the townspeople and their inability to act like decent human beings.
And really, only three characters inspire any sort of sympathy: Krystal, whose isolation and surly attitude come from her toxic home life and heroin addict of a mother; Andrew, who is regularly beaten by his tyrannical father; and Sukhvinder, a shy girl who is constantly berated for her shortcomings. Their problems are caused by their environments, which are overrun by selfish parents and drama-seeking townspeople.
Rowling’s prose paints a perfect picture of life in Pradford, but few things are worth celebrating by the novel’s final page. And while some may argue that Rowling’s attention to realism sought to expose issues of individual responsibility and the deadly effects of secrets in a small town, the story is ineffective because the reader is pushed to dislike everyone in Pradford. When the story’s slow-moving plot is factored into the picture, “The Casual Vacancy” feels like it is missing something important: someone to root for.
We know that the world is a dark and scary place. But what keeps us going is the hope that things will get better. We want to see a hero become a better person after enduring untold obstacles because, by having someone to root for, we realize that things can be solved and people can laugh once more. However, “The Casual Vacancy” lacks a hero. Sukhvinder is the only character that experiences any quantifiable character development, and even then, she merely seems like a lucky supporting character. If anything, Barry is the novel’s hero because of his previous position as councilor, but he is dead and gives us nothing to hope for (sorry, Barry).
By the end of the book, things feel unfinished and empty because almost everyone loses. It is very much a tragic ending, but it lacks a solid purpose. For J.K. Rowling’s first venture into a world beyond Harry Potter, the book shines at some points but feels largely unfinished by its end. If you enjoy tragedies, give it a read. If not, wait for J.K. Rowling’s next big thing.