by Catherine Wang
The wait is finally over – J.K. Rowling, acclaimed author of the Harry Potter series, has released her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. The story takes place in the small, fictional town of Pagford, where conflicts simmer beneath the surface, constantly threatening to blow over. In the first few pages, influential Parish council member Barry Fairbrother dies. His sudden death shocks all the Pagfordians, who immediately realize that Barry’s passing leaves a “casual vacancy” in the council. The novel focuses on the trouble caused by the townspeople fighting to fill the vacancy, as well as the individual conflicts of their family members.
The novel begins as a social comedy but becomes more and more melodramatic as the tension builds. Oftentimes, the story seems terribly pessimistic as the author describes the many instances of immorality. Though Pagford appears to be a pleasant British town with cobbled streets and small businesses, its attractive façade hides the bitter antagonism between competing candidates, husbands and wives, parents and teenagers, and members of different social classes. The conflicts are often disturbingly hateful, especially the instances of open physical abuse within families. After an online hacker reveals Simon’s secret, the furious candidate brutally attacks his wife and son, blaming them for the leak.
Similar to Rowling’s previous books, The Casual Vacancy contains vivid descriptions and powerfully displays the author’s observations of human nature. Rowling has obviously retained her storytelling techniques that were so effective in Harry Potter. The reader feels immersed in the town, caught in the crossfire of the conflicts. Though Rowling mostly uses everyday prose, she often pauses during the narrative to describe the situation and impart a profound moral lesson. For example, she details the greed that drives many of the townspeople. “There, in his poky office, Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.” The author’s profound understanding of human nature shines through in this novel. Like Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy explores effects of death and evil on society.
However, the most striking quality of the novel is its differences from Harry Potter, the landmark series forever entwined with Rowling’s name. Rowling makes a surprisingly graceful transition to adult fiction after a decade of writing fantasy for children. The story’s main distinction is its unflinching portrayal of reality. The author does not hesitate to point out the downsides of life, from anger and greed to drugs and abuse. Rowling’s first adult novel is certain profane enough to qualify for its genre. Another difference from her previous work is the relative lack of action and suspense. Unfortunately, The Casual Vacancy is not half as page-turning as Harry Potter due to a lack of fast-paced action, but it makes up for this with its cunning wit and intriguing characters.
Interestingly, though the novel is clearly for adult audiences, the teenage characters stand out the most. Rowling has an uncommonly deep understanding of the struggles that youth face. Fats, one of the most interesting characters, reflects upon the stupidity of adults and seeks to shake off the restraint of his parents. “His quest to rid himself of restrictive morality was an attempt to regain something he was sure had been stifled in him, something that he had lost as he had left childhood.” Even as readers may censure the poor behavior of the characters, they must also sympathize with their complicated lives.
Rowling’s latest work is an insightful read that exposes the failings of humanity in both a comedic and serious light. Her switch to writing adult fiction only adds to her reputation as a stellar storyteller. So worry no longer, Potter fans – The Casual Vacancy will not disappoint!