'The Casual Vacancy': Rowling begins life after 'Harry'

British writer J.K. Rowling poses for the photographers with her new book, entitled
British writer J.K. Rowling poses for the photographers with her new book, entitled (Lefteris Pitarakis)
Posted: October 07, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

Little, Brown. 503 pp. $35

Reviewed by Kevin Grauke

When, in the history of publishing, has the anticipation for an author's eighth book been so different from the anticipation for her seventh? Five years ago, with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling tied a bow on her seven-volume epic chronicle of a teenage wizard's adventures. Both the young and the young at heart lamented the end of one of the most popular book series in history.

Having become one of the richest women in the world, Rowling could have sailed off into the sunset on a gold-plated Nimbus 2000, never to write another word, but instead she announced that next she would be publishing a novel decidedly unfit for the millions of schoolchildren who composed the vast majority of her readership - in other words, a novel for adults only. What sort of novel would it be, everyone wondered, and would it be any good?

Well, here it is, The Casual Vacancy, and it's a relatively grim realist novel laced with both humor and social commentary. Unlike the Harry Potter books, which are never not about the series' titular hero (no matter how cheerfully distracted we may find ourselves by the subplots of more interesting sorts such as Severus Snape, Neville Longbottom, and Albus Dumbledore), The Casual Vacancy does not focus on any one figure; instead, its narrator pinballs among a cavalcade of characters, giving us peeks into the hearts and brains of everyone from the 4-year-old son of a heroin addict to a Sikh general practitioner - all connected, in one way or another, to Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council.

Within the first three pages, Fairbrother is struck down by an aneurysm, and the rest of the novel traces both the political and personal effects of his death on the citizens of tiny Pagford. At stake politically are the futures of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic and the Fields, a public housing development. Those who wish to shutter the clinic as well as relinquish control of the Fields to the Yarvil District Council announce their candidacy for the open seat, as do those who oppose such a move. Meanwhile, surviving friends and family struggle to persevere in the absence of the benevolent Barry, who seems to have been the nicest and best person in Pagford.

Howard Mollison, already on the council, wants his son, Miles, to fill Barry's seat, while Colin "Cubby" Wall puts himself forward to honor his late best friend's wishes for the town. Simon Price, on the other hand, throws his hat into the ring because he's convinced the position will allow him to line his pockets with kickbacks for favors rendered.

In the meantime, Kay Bawden, a social worker, attempts to prevent a family living in the Fields from surrendering to the drugs and crime of their environment while also trying to resurrect her relationship with Gavin Hughes, the attorney for Fairbrother's widow. Other significant characters include the wives of Howard, Miles, Colin, and Simon, as well as their children and their children's friends - Andrew ("Arf"), Stuart ("Fats"), Gaia, Krystal, and Sukhvinder.

All of these people do eventually become distinct from one another, but for the first half of the novel, the desire for a scorecard is nearly overwhelming.

Nevertheless, what Rowling did such an amazing job of in the Harry Potter books - creating a world into which we immerse ourselves entirely - she does again here. The landscape, the history, and, most of all, the people of this imaginary West Country town are painted in minute brushstrokes.

Unlike in the Harry Potter novels, however, this portraiture serves to supplement no grand narrative. Instead, The Casual Vacancy's central plot - who will win Barry's open seat on the council, and at what cost? - seems merely an excuse for Rowling to hop from character to character (sometimes numerous times on a single page), thoroughly delineating the memories, wishes, and fears of each.

Avid readers of the Harry Potter books happily followed Rowling down every digressive path, grateful for every morsel of backstory or sub-sub-plot she chose to drop along the way. Readers of The Casual Vacancy, on the other hand, are unlikely to be as enthralled by the parenthetical asides Rowling is incapable of suppressing in the name of expediency and a lower, less Potteresque page count. In a world with no spells to cast and no horcruxes to destroy, such meticulousness may bore some just as much as 4 Privet Drive bored Harry.

This is not to say, however, that The Casual Vacancy entirely fails to please. Although it contentedly circles its vast cast for hundreds of pages, refusing to move the plot forward at a pace faster than a crawl, only then to rush pell-mell through its final chapters toward an overly melodramatic ending, it also demonstrates Rowling's ability to create engaging and finely drawn characters for an adult readership.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the novel's most vibrant characters are its teenagers. Chafing against the real and imagined restraints of their circumstances, they nearly beg Rowling to abandon the adults of Pagford and dedicate herself solely to exploring the pains and difficulties of their young, thoroughly un-magical lives.

Kevin Grauke is an associate professor of English at La Salle University. He is the author of "Shadows of Men," a short-story collection that will be published in December.

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