The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s long-awaited first novel for adults, and her first non-Harry Potter related story. The novel is set in a small English town named Pagford, where everyone we meet is vengeful and plagued by secrets – everyone, it seems, except Barry Fairbrother. The story begins with the death of this Parish Councilor, a death that in some way affects everyone in the town. We meet characters that were his friends, his family, his enemies, and his political opponents. The novel depicts the ripple effect caused by Barry’s death, and what it means for the people of Pagford – as well as for his political cause.
One of J.K. Rowling’s strengths as a writer is her ability to craft realistic, three-dimensional characters. She showed this skill in The Casual Vacancy, but, perhaps purposefully, failed to make them likeable. The picture-perfect town of Pagford is wrought with conflict; every character is in some way dark, resentful, or spiteful – again, excepting Barry Fairbrother. While this choice did provide an interesting plot, I missed the lovable characters that Rowling is more than capable of creating. Her character set produced a much more cynical, gritty novel than her previous works.
Rowling also chose to introduce the reader to twenty or so characters within the first forty pages. This was very confusing, as every few pages the narrator would shift; it was difficult to keep track of all the characters and their relationships to each other. However, as the story progressed, I began to appreciate how Rowling expertly wove the townspeople together so realistically. It allowed me, as a reader, to really get a sense of the tightly-woven, almost incestuous community of Pagford.
In an interview with J.K. Rowling that I watched, she explained how the “embarrassing” region of poverty that exists in Pagford’s limits grew out of her own experience. She lived in destitution for many years, relying on government assistance. She is a success story, just like Barry Fairbrother. From her past grew inspiration for her new novel’s overarching conflict.
The most important thing to keep in mind while reading The Casual Vacancy is that, while it is indeed written by J.K. Rowling, it is not Harry Potter. Rowling’s new novel is cleverly crafted and intriguing, but we must keep it separate from the Harry Potter series in order to enjoy it as its own, stand-alone story.