Before I begin this review, I’d like to take a moment and say that I’m sick of reviews referring to The Casual Vacancy as J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. While the Harry Potter books certainly originated as a series for children, the themes, particularly in the last three books, are appropriate for those who grew up with the series (I was in elementary school when the first book was released, and high school when Deathly Hallows came out), as well as younger readers and, yes, adults. However, I am alright with reviewers describing The Casual Vacancy as Rowling’s first book marketed toward adults because I do think that’s true—and I don’t think I would advise it be read by anyone under the age of twelve or so, due to the amount of profanity and sexual content (and violence, but then again, Deathly Hallows).
Anyway, onto the review itself. I am sure there will be people who judge this book harshly because it doesn’t live up to their expectations after Harry Potter, and I’m sure there will be others who will love it simply because it was written by Rowling. To state my own bias, I certainly fall closer to the latter camp than the former, but honestly: this is a very good book. It begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother in a small English town, and the town must fill his seat on the parish council. The election, and a bit of electronic tampering, sparks controversy involving some of the town’s most interesting citizens.
The story begins slowly and drags at places in the first few chapters, but as secrets are revealed and gossiped about, as small towns tend to do, the novel heats up, branching off into many different though interconnected threads. There is the matter of the public housing development The Fields and whether the Bellweather rehabilitation clinic should remain in the town, the bullying of a young Sikh girl by her peers (Sukhvinder, the victim, is probably my favourite character in the novel), and of course, the election to fill the parish council spot.
It can occasionally be difficult to remember each characters’ role, given that there are at least ten main characters and twenty or so others with speaking parts. I recommend this guide from The Telegraph that outlines thirty-four characters and their place in the novel. However, as the novel goes on almost every character becomes quite memorable. In particular, as I said, I liked Sukhvinder Jawanda, but other favourites included Krystal Weedon, school bully, loyal sister, and drug addict’s daughter, and Sukhvinder’s doctor mother Parminder.
Worldbuilding is Rowling’s strength, and she does this as well in a small English town as she did in a more *cough* magical setting. Small details and minor storylines, such as Samantha Mollison’s obsession with her daughter’s favourite boy band or Andrew Price’s hateful thoughts about his abusive father, serve to create a fully-realised, believable world that makes The Casual Vacancy seem almost like a non-fiction narrative of small town life and politics, in the most entertaining of ways.
Rowling’s writing does have some flaws, of course. To my neverending frustration, she seems reluctant to use “said” as a dialogue tag; in the first chapter alone characters can be heard to “boom,” “roar,” and “enunciate” when a simple “said” would suffice. And she seems set in her ways when it comes to writing accents, dropping g’s at the end of gerunds and otherwise writing out indicators of speech dialects. Still, these are stylistic choices and while I am not personally fond of them, they are not major issues.
I’ve spent this review trying not to constantly compare this novel to the Harry Potter series. However, I will say that many of the stories’ themes, such as racism and classism and family relationships, are similar, although in Casual Vacancy they appear in real-world form and are more thoroughly examined. It’s a thought-provoking and compelling book, and Rowling’s writing has a magic to it that doesn’t come from wizardry.
P.s. In less than two weeks I will be seeing Rowling speak at the David Koch theatre in NYC! I’m so excited.