In J.K. Rowling’s new adult fiction book The Casual Vacancy, gone are the transient childhood days of magic spells and enchanting sorcery of the Harry Potter series.
Set entirely in the Muggle world, with characters resembling the detested Dursleys, Rowling’s first adult novel takes place in the small picturesque town of Pagford, England, which is teeming with dark secrets.
After the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a Pagford Parish Council member, the open council seat sets off a catalyst for an election that unleashes the town’s buried secrets and underlying antagonism between employers and employees, teachers and students, neighbors and friends, parents and children.
The deceptively simple political division of the council over the Fields – an undeveloped, poverty-stricken town – is heightened by the many underlying social tensions.
Rowling delves into these characters’ lives until every raw feeling is exposed in this compelling novel. The town is split between those in favor of keeping the Fields and those against its financial and aesthetic shortcomings.
The Casual Vacancy is a rapid departure from Rowling’s previous work – with rape, racism and abuse – bursting the safe haven of Hogwarts. If you were secretly hoping that the charming characters from Harry Potter would jump through the pages, you will be disappointed.
Although fans of the billionaire author may be secretly dismayed by the lack of heroism and natural charm of her usual writing, this book clearly establishes J.K. Rowling as a successful adult novelist capable of spinning dark tales that expose human character without wands or magic.
The book starts out slow, as various viewpoints of the 34 inhabitants entangle together until the characters and names become blurred.
Rowling, however, is a master of exposing the blunt and harsh realities of human imperfections, unraveling each character down to the grittiest details. She carefully fashions each character until they are all at once the novel’s heroine, villain, victim, bully, lover and traitor.
While there are no defined protagonists, the teenagers of the novel are easily the most realistic and relatable, not unlike the Potter series.
Krystal Weedon, a resident of the Fields, is simultaneously the resident school bully, the loyal guardian of her younger brother Robbie and heroin-addicted mother, the bold leader of her rowing team and the cause of neighboring mothers’ tears.
Even the adults are multifaceted and dynamic. Parminder Jawanda is admirable for her steadfast defense of the Fields housing project, yet despicable for caustically ignoring her self-mutilating daughter, who suffers at the hands of Krystal Weedon.
Rowling successfully develops these character studies as stories within a larger framework, driving the story forward with her easily recognizable, clear prose.
The familiarity of her precise and yet bitingly humorous writing is refreshing to read and enjoyable.
Although the first half of the book simply sets up for the unexpectedly rushed ending, readers will get caught up in the faintly familiar entanglement of Pagford, with its scheming mothers, pitwiful heroes and surprisingly vindictive victims.
Rowling cunningly crafts these parochial traits to reflect everyday lives in a surprisingly sharp tone, reminding the reader that these tensions and human flaws exist in all of us.
The constantly shifting storyline finally culminates when tensions clash together as harsh accusations and rumors pollute the seemingly idyllic town and spiral into a rapidly dark descent that matches the overall undertones of social righteousness and moral responsibility.
The book may be slower-paced, and the characters may not be as lovable or easily admired as Harry, Ron or Hermione.
There may be some points in the beginning when the book becomes dry, and the plot of the novel seems insignificant and narrow.
Once you read the book, however, you will not regret that you purchased The Casual Vacancy – if not for its literary merit and great prose, then for its poignant study of the true nature of human prejudices and imperfections.
– By Fiona Zhao