Book review: J. K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy”

When the “Harry Potter” series came to an end five years ago with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”, it would be an understatement to say that the world was interested to find out the next phase in J. K. Rowling’s writing career.

The publication of “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” in 2008 generated blockbuster sales, with initial sales estimates for the slim volume at $7.6 million. Her announcement in February of this year that her first post-Harry Potter novel would be for adults, and the subsequent announcement in April that the novel would be named “The Casual Vacancy”, was enough to garner headlines.

Within hours of its release last Sept. 27, “The Casual Vacancy” skyrocketed to the top spot on Amazon’s Book Chart in the United States, while the Irish Independent revealed that   first week sales of “The Casual Vacancy” was the second highest “since records began”, bowing only to Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”.

But while the commercial success of “The Casual Vacancy” isn’t that surprising — it’s Rowling’s first book since “Harry Potter” — its critical reception is something that is less secure. Will “The Casual Vacancy” cast the same spell on readers as “Harry Potter” did? Or will Rowling end up like A. A. Milne, whose work after “Winnie the Pooh” was roundly panned by critics?

“The Casual Vacancy” takes readers to the small town of Pagford, where the parish council has been waging a long internal war with regards to the Fields, a housing project that could be best described as the wrong side of the tracks. Some members of the Pagford parish council would like nothing more than to be rid of the Fields’ broken streetlights, vandalized buildings, and uncouth residents.

Standing in the way of this goal is Barry Fairbrother, a member of the council who grew up in the Fields and has done his best to keep the housing project afloat. When Barry dies suddenly of an aneurysm, it triggers a power struggle within the community as opposing political factions seek to feel the casual vacancy left by Fairbrother.

But as the elections for Barry Fairbrother’s vacant position come closer and closer, the secrets and lies of its residents begin to leak out into the open, being revealed on Pagford’s online message boards. How much more can the idyllic veneer of Pagford take before it cracks under the pressure of all these revelations?

It’s easy to find oneself disoriented by “The Casual Vacancy”, especially after being fed a decade-long diet of the adventures of the world’s most famous boy wizard. After getting used to Rowling’s mostly innocuous but sometimes slyly transgressive wordplay in the “Potter” books, it’s a bit of a jolt to the system to see her actually let loose the venom that was constantly bubbling under the surface of her children’s books.

There are many different ways that Rowling does this throughout the book, the most noticeable of which would be the almost flippant that female body parts are described throughout the book. It’s hard not to be taken aback and be fascinated at the same time when she spend several paragraphs describing the various breasts and genitalia two male characters encounter during their routine trawling for online porn.

Then there is how she bleakly describes the inner lives of each and every one of the many characters that populate the town of Pagford. This time around, readers do not have the black and white morality of the Potter books to reassure them. Almost all of the characters in “The Casual Vacancy” are an uncomfortable shade of gray, repulsive and yet worthy of sympathy in sometimes lopsided measure.

How one takes to these changes depends entirely on how dearly one holds Rowling’s Potter past. For some, it may be a new direction that will be hard to stomach; others may find Rowling’s journey into murkier depths deeply satisfying.

And what of Rowling’s vaunted skill at plotting, which made the “Potter” books such page-turners even when they grew in pages with every new volume?

Rowling certainly takes her time to set the scene, with more than half of the novel concerned with revealing the many cracks and flaws in the residents of Pagford. As the novel progresses, Rowling pulls the strings tighter on her characters, bringing them closer towards a cataclysmic event that drastically changes the town’s status quo.

However, the many strands that Rowling weaves throughout the 500-plus page work don’t come together as elegantly as they would in a “Harry Potter” book. It’s easier to wave away an over-reliance on a plot point in a world where hippogriffs exist, but it’s much harder to overlook in the very real world of “The Casual Vacancy”.

It is also the “Harry Potter” books that come off as the more subtle of the two when it comes to imparting an overarching message; “The Casual Vacancy” delivers its stand for compassion and looking out for one another with the bluntness of a blow to the head. Whatever nuance Rowling has imparted into her characters hasn’t lent itself as well to her plot.

But even with these misgivings, there’s no denying that “The Casual Vacancy” is still a strong debut, with great characterization and grand ambitions. True, those ambitions aren’t always fulfilled, but it’s hardly going to matter to the Potter faithful.

(“The Casual Vacancy” is available in all National Book Stores.)

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