There is a common trope in the music industry in which a young pop starlet decides that she’s all grown up, and that it’s time for the rest of the world to know it too. As a result, she starts writing raunchy songs and dressing provocatively with the hopes of aging her fan base and proving that damnit, she’s not a little girl anymore. To apply this concept to literature, the pop star is J.K. Rowling, and her means of asserting her place amongst the grown-ups is her newest novel, The Casual Vacancy.
Readers expecting references to a certain school of magic, or a tale of love and adventure will be sorely disappointed. Long gone are the wizards and witches of the Harry Potter series, and instead we are left amongst a village of Britons even too vile for the Dursleys. Although Rowling’s ability to capture the essence of each character down to his or her deepest flaws still comes through, the novel is drowning in darkness to the extent that it appears contrived.
It goes without saying that this woman can write. Anyone that can write the beginnings to one of the greatest fantasy book series since J.R.R. Tolkien on a cocktail napkin (on a train no less) is bound to be riddled with some degree of literary genius. Yet despite the few winning moments of Vacancy, I did not see the same degree of complexity, or the same clever linkage of characters and plot lines that are characteristic of the Harry Potter series.
The novel tells the tale of two conflicting towns, Pagford and Yarvil. Pagford is the quintessential British town, filled with history and cobblestoned streets, while the inhabitants of Yarvil are drug addicts and degenerates. Without giving away the ending, the novel reads like a Romeo and Juliet tale, minus the forbidden love story.
After a city council member dies as a result of a stroke, numerous candidates jump to take his place. The candidates at large are divided by the desire to allow the children of Yarvil to attend the pristine private school in Pagford. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the town of Pagford is comprised of selfish, self-advancing individuals, and these candidates for city council care little for anyone but themselves. The reader is presented with characters from both towns, and it becomes quickly apparent that the town of Pagford is no more evolved than Yarvil.
Admirably, Rowling does not resort to clichés by making the inhabitants of Yarvil good in order to counteract the self-indulgent, self-absorbed rageaholics of Pagford. Rather, no character is wholly good throughout the entire novel, which on one hand is a refreshing change of pace, but on the other hand is a little exhausting and isolating. At no point was I able to identify with any of the characters, and the degree of suffering endured by the teenagers in the novel, was severe, but even worse, unaddressed. At the novel’s close, the domestic and emotional abuse suffered by many of the young people in the novel isn’t resolved, nor are the abusive parents held responsible.
Although I understand Rowling’s desire to break away from the Harry Potter franchise and establish herself as a complex adult author, The Casual Vacancy simply tries too hard. Domestic abuse, substance abuse, emotional abuse, poverty, adultery, rape, and death are all deeply complex subjects that could span thousands of novels individually– trying to capture all of them in one text belittles the gravity of their consequences. While the pacing of the novel results in an “I-can’t-put-it-down” feeling, overall Rowling is unable to anchor the novel in the sea of misery and violence she creates. Best leave this one in the back of the Restricted Section.
– Jenni Zellner