I finally got a chance to read The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first published non-Harry Potter book, and I’m trying to remember why it got lackluster reviews. But I don’t want to go back and read any of them because I found it captivating.
Maybe it was too soon on the heels of Hogwarts, or maybe it was too edgy for the fans of her young adult fiction. But I thought it shared so much that was compelling about the Harry Potter series if you paid enough attention. From the craft of her writing to the social commentary embedded in each, Rowling is emerging in my mind as a contemporary novelist to be studied.
I’m not an expert in the craft of writing, but I write enough and read enough about writing to recognize good stuff when I see it. Rowling’s style clearly opts for symbolic names, and we see this in The Casual Vacancy from the heroic dead man named Fairbrother, to the ethereal teen beauty named Gaia, to the corrupt money scamming Simon Price. Remember the moony and sweet Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter? Or the geeky Weasley brothers? And of course Voldemort himself, who takes us all on a flight to death (vol de mort). Rowling writes in short focused chapters and uses vivid descriptions of bodies and physical manifestation of characters’ emotional and mental issues. She manages a large cast of characters in each, and in The Casual Vacancy figured out how to use shifting point of view quickly, deftly, and effectively.
But it’s the social commentary embedded in each world that pushes her work to another more interesting level. The Casual Vacancy is a tightly wound dramatic tale of a community fractured along lines of social class. The death of Barry Fairbrother creates a vacancy on the Pagford Town Council, effectively shifting an upcoming vote on whether or not to continue to incorporate and thus support The Fields. This is the impoverished neighborhood sitting between the idyllic Pagford and the midsize town of Yarvil, home to families in need of public aid, no shortage of small time criminals, and an addiction recovery clinic. It’s the kind of world that most of the smug self-assured controlled Pagford residents would like to remain invisible. In this way, the novel captures ugly conversations common to many state and local debates around public aid, economic inequality, crime, and substance abuse.
If The Casual Vacancy is all about class, the world of Harry Potter is at least in part about race. Anyone not a witch or wizard is a “muggle” or more negatively (and revealingly) a “mudblood.” Much of the dramatic conflict centered around the fact that Voldemort himself is the son of a muggle and a witch, thus making him a mudblood. The desire of some elements of the wizarding world to register, segregate, and eventually eliminate muggles and only acknowledge purebloods reflects many of the more horrific chapters of human history around blood and race purity.
In the Harry Potter books as well as in The Casual Vacancy, Rowling shows keen insight into how a younger generation inherits the consequences of their parents conflicts. In fact, it is the youth in both worlds who take imperfect action, confront troubling truths head-on, and bring about the final dramatic conflict that not all survive. It wasn’t perfectly tied up, and there was at least one story that I wish had been fleshed out more … because if you’re going to include an intersex character in a book, don’t let the opportunity for humanizing vanish.
Rowling also doesn’t shy away from death. In these worlds as in ours, conflict is real and it has consequences. Lives are lost, and the deaths are not trite or gratuitous. They are tragic and readers mourn. At least this one did. I found myself wishing desperately at the end of The Casual Vacancy that one of the mothers could summon up Mrs. Weasley’s wand and shout, “Not My Daughter, You Bitch!” so that her teen might not have to pay the price for others’ tragic flaws and mistakes.
But magic doesn’t intervene in Pagford or in our daily lives. We confront our own consequences and live with complex social problems that we often ignore and perpetuate. Identities take shape in a world where race and class matter, and J.K. Rowling has found a way to write stories that ring true whether set in magical worlds or a familiar small town.
Because they’re fundamentally about us.