With the amount of scrutiny surrounding J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter-series novel—a decidedly adult novel at that—it’s understandable that Rowling would want to distance the project as much as possible from her previous one, and from all the unfair comparisons it invites. And The Casual Vacancy succeeds wildly in that regard, positioning itself at the complete opposite end of the X and Y axes from Rowling’s landmark series: Where Harry Potter was fantastical and epic, The Casual Vacancy is mundane and doggedly narrow, obsessed with the minutiae and pettiness that can make daily life a drudgery, a lonely, isolated trudge where the only sense of triumph comes through geographical or corporeal escape. There’s nothing here to titillate or satiate Harry Potter fans looking for even the tiniest fix, except perhaps a glimpse of the dreary, picayune world that twisted Harry’s contemptible Muggle—that is, non-magical—relatives, the Dursleys, into some of the series’ most pitiable figures.
The Casual Vacancy is chockablock with characters who exist somewhere in the space between pitiable and contemptible. They’re a sprawling network of small-minded people, among whom neither a hero nor a villain emerges. (There are a couple of seeming innocents, though their existences are appropriately tragic.) The closest the novel has to a hero is the councilman whose death in the book’s opening pages creates the titular vacancy in the parish council of a tiny, picturesque West Country town. Pagford’s grudging association with an abutting public-housing project called The Fields is the source of deep-seated animosity and fissure among the town’s residents. The death of Barry Fairbrother, who was born and raised in The Fields before becoming one of Pagford’s most prominent and well-liked citizens, sets off a cold war between those looking to continue his work of keeping The Fields from being de-annexed, and those who wish to be rid of the blight on Pagford’s bucolic charm, with each faction angling to fill the position with someone who will support their agenda.
Rowling has said that the book’s central premise of a local election came to her in the same kind of flash of inspiration that birthed Harry Potter, and while a small-town election and its fallout may not be inherently more or less dramatic than an all-out magical war, it does invite a different kind of drama, one in which there is no obvious delineation between good and evil, or between victory and defeat. In the grand scheme, the machinations of Pagford and its residents are incredibly low-stakes, but the tight-knit web of community that Rowling creates among her characters—none of the novel’s dozen or so viewpoint characters are separated by more than a couple of degrees—means that every action ripples outward into repercussions that prove devastating on the personal level.
Those characters associated with the pro-Fields faction are presented as slightly more compassionate than the snobby, welfare-hating individuals looking to wash their hands of the housing project’s unseemly residents, but they are by no means unambiguously “good,” and for every character with a firm philosophy and sense of resolve, there are two more who are concerned more with their own personal affairs (and their neighbors’) than any sort of civic or social responsibility. Conversely, while there are some exceedingly unlikable characters, there is no clear-cut villain or source of blame; in the world of The Casual Vacancy, villainy is the product of self-interest, and narcissism, not a shadowy figure with a malevolent plan. But at the same time, the book’s collectivist outlook presents all its characters as victims themselves in some way or another. Their misery is either their own doing, or others’, or society at large—usually a combination of all three.
The Casual Vacancy is impressively constructed, as Rowling’s gift for weaving together narrative threads and small details comes to a tightly wound conclusion, in which multiple characters observe and react to a climactic event from different physical angles and emotional stances. However, the emotional impact of this sequence is undercut somewhat by the ambiguity of nearly everyone involved—and, thanks to the novel’s intertwined nature, nearly everyone is somehow involved.
That ambiguity makes for a rather bleak but nonetheless provocative ending that arrives quickly on the heels of a meandering, bloated portrait of a small town and its denizens that doesn’t foreshadow doom so much as set the table for it. And it takes its time with that setup. Rowling takes great pains to present her unremarkable setting and cast as a series of small but important threads in a rich tapestry. And while that tapestry ultimately isn’t particularly pleasant to examine, it is rich and well-crafted, full of small details and observations about small-town middle- and lower-class life and its effects on people’s personalities.
Those expecting the workmanlike prose of Rowling’s best-known series will be surprised by the amount of style she injects into The Casual Vacancy, particularly in the way characters move unobtrusively into and out of the foreground, with narrative viewpoints shifting fluidly as the situation warrants. At times, though, it seems that in reacting to the opinion that the Harry Potter books weren’t particularly interesting in terms of prose, Rowling overcorrects, veering into metaphors and descriptions that are self-consciously showy, or even downright silly. (At one point, she compares the difficult matriculation of a problem student to the digestion of a goat by a boa constrictor, that is, “highly visible and uncomfortable for all involved.”)
It’s all but impossible to regard The Casual Vacancy completely independent of Rowling’s previous work, but she has gone to great lengths to facilitate such an evaluation. This is, for all intents and purposes, a debut novel—an exceptionally high-profile one, yes, but ultimately an unknown entity. In that light, it’s self-assured yet slightly fussy, the product of a hugely successful writer who doesn’t have to prove anything, but would like to. In attempting to craft a compelling story centered on the minutiae of local politics, land disputes, and a largely unloveable cast of characters—a story that reflects much larger questions about social and personal responsibility—Rowling certainly hasn’t taken the path of least resistance, and the strain occasionally shows. But The Casual Vacancy is admirably ambitious and manages to say a great deal within its extremely narrow focus, showing the sort of deep scars that can result from even the pettiest circumstances.