I am a Harry Potter fan. At the insistence of my mom, who was aware of the books very early on, I started to read the series and soon became a fan as did almost everybody else. It was great to dive into Harry Potter‘s world and to engage in the cultural conversation with my mom, my sisters and, seemingly, the rest of the world.
But I have to admit, although I enjoyed the books and the movies adaptations immensely, I was a weak fan. I only read each book once; the only one I managed to read more than one time was book 7, which I read twice. So when J.K. Rowling announced she was going to publish a new novel for adults last year, I was very excited. I realized quickly that my excitement was more out of love for J.K. Rowling and what she had accomplished than out of any expectation I could have about her writing.
A Casual Vacancy, the physical book itself, with its tacky cover and its mysterious title, has only one thing going for it: the name J.K. Rowling. That name is no small thing. But I kept thinking, every time I saw it for sale in supermarkets and other places that normally don’t sell books, that if it wasn’t for that name, I would never consider picking it up by myself. It’s just not very appealing. Now that I have read it, I think that may have been the point all along.
The little English town of Pagford is a beautiful, old, typical English town. As with any other little town, Pagford is full of regular people, pretty people, ugly people, imperfect people. In fact, at times, the people of Pagford are more than just imperfect: they are downright unappealing, their ugliness magnified through the glass of the beautiful and idyllic little town. And, to be honest, there is nothing less appealing to me than small town politics. They remind me, not in a pleasant way, about extremely boring strata meetings that nobody is really interested in and nobody ever wants to attend. Yes. But Rowling not only sets her story in such a little town, she weaves her plot around the election of the new seat of the parish council. The sudden death of its president it’s the cause of the “casual vacancy”.
Rowling starts slow and centers the story on several Pagford families. Little by little, we learn about each of their members, both the adults and their children. She very skilfully gives us the two points of view: that of the adults, immersed in the upcoming election and their very grown-up preoccupations and that of the teenagers, with their very real issues and pains. Rowling doesn’t varnish their lives with pretty language: when teenage boys think about sex, they do so in the most unromantic ways that boys full of hormones can. Marriages are shown at their most stark but also at their most boring: An abusive husband is never confronted by his submissive wife, too weak to even defend her children. A once youthful wife is so bored and disappointed with her life, she dreams of escaping it all, maybe with a younger man. The teenagers too face their issues: bullying, low self-esteem, the horrible mistakes of their parents.
The issue at the heart of the divide between possible candidates for the parish council is the suburb called the Fields, a neighbourhood at the edge of the town inhabited by the poorest and most destitute families. The Fields also has a high population of drug addicts and criminals, so the fact that kids from the Fields get to attend the secondary school in Pagford is a constant point of contention.
Scandal soon rips through the fabric of the town, revealing all its ugly secrets and also, its ordinariness. I think this was the intended tone Rowling wanted to present, one of unadorned realism. The result is compelling, though not very beautiful. We feel we are very close to that world and that we are very familiar to its day to day dullness.
One of the things I most loved about the Harry Potter series was the humanity of the characters Rowling created. If the world they inhabited was magical, their actions, feelings and failures were all very human, especially when it came to how each character dealt with the magical world and their own powers. Children were always amazed by the magic they were capable of performing and adults were painfully aware of the dangers those same powers brought with them. There is another aspect that I think made Harry Potter great, and it was that death was at the center of the story, constantly reminding everybody that not even magic could save you from escaping it. We felt there was something very much at stake.
Death is also a central theme in A Casual Vacancy. A man dies and we see how the world he had created for himself caves-in in his absence. The power of his good intentions is gone with him and the consequences of this absence, seemingly only relevant to those most close to him, are actually far-reaching. Indifference, powerlessness, a radically different set of values, these all play a role as well. Unfortunately, while we get all of the humanity, Rowling seems to be uninspired by these characters. While there is something very much at stake here too, these characters seem tired, bored, and certainly uninspired themselves.
In the end, this is a story about those who fall through the cracks, the stories we read casually on the paper in the morning only to indifferently carry on with our lives. Sad, but all too common and real. So I have to admit I was disappointed in the end, but not so much with the story as I was disappointed with life.