The Casual Vacancy

On September 27th 2012, JK Rowling released a new novel, The Casual Vacancy. The book’s publication marked Rowling’s first departure from children’s literature, as well as her first work of fiction set firmly in the muggle world.  As the author of the Harry Potter series, Rowling is a publishing rock star– there is no comparing her to anyone, really– so it’s not surprising that her new novel has been subjected to fierce critical scrutiny.   As a Youth Services librarian and Potter devotee, I couldn’t help but add my opinion to the bounty of internet criticism about the book.*  

The Casual Vacancy is in essence a 500 page treatise on class mobility, community responsibility, and the dangers of conservatism.  Set in the fictional West Country suburb of Pagford, it centers on the conflict between two factions of the local Parrish Council as they fight to fill a seat vacated by the sudden death of one of their members. The conservative faction wants the Fields, a local housing project, to be moved to the jurisdiction of a bordering city.  The liberal faction wants to keep the Fields incorporated in Pagford.

While Rowling offers a nuanced answer to the novels’ central questions about the poor and their advocates, her method lacks elegance.  The book feels bloated: It’s 500 pages long, narrated by a small army of Pagford residents, and crammed with a glut of “issues.”  The book covers rape, suicide, drug addiction, masturbation, teen sex, domestic abuse, cutting, xenophobia, the dangers of obesity, and prostitution.   I was left with the impression that Rowling, after nearly two decades of trading in metaphor, was desperate to write about “adult” topics.  The prose itself is compelling from moment to moment, but the arc of the novel veers into the overblown.  Rowling makes a similar mistake with some of the characterizations.  Most of the townspeople are well realized, but she stumbles with the portraits of the conservatives, painting them as Dursleyish-brutes who think in rigid stereotypes and care only for their own material gain.

The strength of this novel is Rowling’s clear compassion for the downtrodden.  As in Harry Potter, she moved me to tears as she detailed the crimes people commit against each other, and the acts of heroism that can be carried out by even the most ordinary among us.  Cases in point were her depictions of the teenage characters.  They leapt from the page as nuanced individuals that were capable of both ferocity of feeling and numb detachment, all in the space of a single sentence.

While I wasn’t wowed by this novel as a whole, I was impressed with aspects of it.  It struck me that Rowling has the makings of a great Young Adult author.  Her last four Potter books hung balanced between YA and Children’s literature, and in turn The Casual Vacancy seems to fall somewhere between Adult and Young Adult literature.  If Rowling wrote her next novel for an explicitly teenage audience she would be free to write about sex n’ drugs n’ sadness of all sorts (those topics are par for the course in YA novels), but she wouldn’t have to curb her sentimentality or hyperbole of character.

In the end, no matter what JK Rowling publishes next, I will read it.  She is responsible for the creation of a world that has become part of the vernacular of childhood.  I’m going to give her more than one chance to write another masterpiece.

* If you’d like a professional’s take on the book, the two most prominent reviews in the States have come from The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani who panned the novel, and author Lev Grossman, writing for Time,  who praised it.

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