BOOK: The Casual Vacancy

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While reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, I found myself doing exactly what the author wanted readers to avoid: I kept trying to draw comparisons to the Harry Potter series. As it turns out, there’s really not much room for comparison. Unlike Harry and friends, the characters of The Casual Vacancy are small-minded, petty, and cruel. Rowling leaves no closet skeleton unexposed as she delves into the lives of residents of Pagford, a rural English village, who are scrambling to fill a position on the parish council after a sudden death.

This is not to say that the Harry Potter series did not embrace dark elements; it did. But the underlying messages remained clear: family bonds are unbreakable, friends will stand by you, and love is a powerful weapon. With deft strokes, Rowling here disposes with each of these ideas. In Pagford, parents abuse children, racist epithets are shouted on the streets, and marriages fall apart. In the real world, Rowling seems to say, there’s no Albus Dumbledore with a solution to our problems.

Rowling narrates the stories of a broad cast of characters, slipping in and out of different viewpoints. She succeeded in establishing such a large cast over the course of 3,000 pages in the Harry Potter series; in The Causal Vacancy’s 500, there are too many characters for the story and not enough development for the reader to become invested in them.
Unsurprisingly, Rowling strikes gold following teenage exploits. While Potter and his friends were never sneaking off to drink vodka at parties, Rowling captures the same unpretentious banter and hidden vulnerability here that she did with the Potter set. A tentative friendship, an unrequited crush—these provide the most poignant scenes of the book. But while the lives of these Pagford teens are far more interesting than their parents’, they are relegated to secondary roles.

Ultimately, Rowling fails to get us invested in Pagford’s struggles. Without arresting characters, we watch the town fall to pieces with a sense of detachment. The Casual Vacancy is clearly Rowling’s attempt to step away from Potter and distinguish herself as a multifaceted writer. This process is not a smooth one, however, and in an attempt to make a 180-degree turn, she loses the charm in her writing that retained readers for over a decade.

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