Book Review – The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter. This obvious fact needs to be stated because, I’m willing to bet, 90% of The Casual Vacancy’s readers have picked it up because of the author’s name. I certainly was one of them – driven by a certain curiosity to see what else J.K. Rowling can do.

Of course I knew that The Casual Vacancy had nothing to do with the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts but I hoped some of the magic that Rowling created in those novels would trickle into this story. It didn’t. It’s not even Harry Potter and the Parish Council.

The Casual Vacancy is a very British story. It takes place in a small English town called Pagford and its central drama focuses on a parish council. Like I said, it’s very British, and not just because they use the words “shag” and “fag” in ways we in North America most definitely do not.

The story begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, due to an aneurysm. Fairbrother’s death opens up a spot on the Pagford Parish Council, the decision-making force in this little village. We learn that the Parish council is decidedly divided over a couple of key issues and that who replaces Fairbrother on the council could have a huge influence over these issues.

The novel revolves around several characters with inter-connected lives, as people in small towns so often have. (Though, I have to say, I live in a small town now and I don’t find that people are quite this involved in each other’s lives. Or I’m better at boundaries than these folks.) For the first couple of chapters, the number of characters introduced and their relationships to one another is confusing. It took me a while to be sure of who everybody was and even later on in the novel I had to pause and remind myself of connections.

It is, perhaps unfair, to compare The Casual Vacancy to the Harry Potter series and, yet, it’s also unavoidable. The problem though, for me, didn’t lie in the fact that Harry Potter doesn’t make an appearance in The Casual Vacancy or that no one performed any magic. I expected those things. The problem was that Rowling couldn’t make me care about any of the numerous characters the way that she made me care about Harry and his friends and classmates.

I’m not any sort of huge Potter fan but I read each of those seven books with a sense of urgency. The writing was smooth and fluid and I sped through them, longing to know what happened, hoping that all would turn out well for Harry. I didn’t particularly care how things turned out for the residents of Pagford. I wasn’t even sure who I was supposed to care about.

I think Rowling fell victim to a common problem among writers today. In an effort to create a “realistic” tableau of life in the modern, she created a number of “realistic” characters, none of whom are likeable. No one was kind to their mother. No one was loyal to their friends in an unselfish manner. No one was happy in their marriage. (That last one gets me especially, when authors seem unable to portray a healthy romantic relationship.)

Realistically, yes, people are flawed. People are unpleasant and they snap at each other and they do many things out of selfish ambition. But people are multi-faceted and lovely and have beautiful smiles and may be rude to a waiter and then go home and say exactly the right thing to their daughter who just failed a chemistry exam.

The great thing about Harry Potter – and so many fairy tales – was that we knew who we were cheering for. Even when Harry was annoying (and in the 4th and 5th books he was definitely annoying) and made mistakes and was unkind to his friends, we cheered for him. Because we’d seen that he was the good guy and we wanted him to win. I know that real life isn’t as simple as all that. There are many great novels where the good guys do not win or where the lines between good and evil are blurred. But Rowling hasn’t done that in The Casual Vacancy. Rather, she’s given us a bunch of fairly unlikeable characters, asked us to follow them through a few weeks in the life of their town, and then given us a frustratingly vague and yet overly-coincidental ending.  There’s nothing to be learned, there’s nothing to be gained. I probably cared less about the characters at the end of the novel than I did at the beginning.

If you’re looking for a great novel about life and relationships, go read The Brothers Karamazov. If you’re looking for something fun to absorb you, stick to Harry Potter.

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