I’ll never forget working at a bookstore in 1999 when the midnight release for Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire went down. At that time, I hadn’t read any of the books and was arrogantly confident that because Harry Potter was popular, it was probably lame. Luckily, I grew out of that mentality and got into the Potter books a year later. They’re by no means even close to being some of my favorite books, nor have I ever had the inclination to reread them. But, my life is better for having read them and I’m glad I got to participate in the massive cultural phenomena they inspired.
Now, the person who scarred so many of us with lighting bolts on our brains, has reinvented herself as a literary novelist. This would be like Harry Potter turning in his wand and vowing to never do magic. Does it work? Did J. K. Rowling produce something worthwhile? Well, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea (and it may not even by mine) – but I have to admit, The Casual Vacancy is totally readable.
Light spoilers for The Casual Vacancy.
J. K. Rowling must have a thing for giant casts of characters, because The Casual Vacancy has got to have triple the number of people on Downton Abbey. Because of this, I found the beginning of the novel a little jarring, as I desperately tried to keep all the various names and families straight. But, right away, I have to say Rowling shines a nice spotlight on how human nature actually works as everyone reacts to a sudden death in totally different ways....
Without getting into too many plot details (there are a lot!) a small English town called Pagford is rocked when Barry Fairbrother dies rather suddenly. I liked this because I hadn’t read the jacket copy or anything about the novel, so I didn't know what was going to happen and was actually a little shocked when the person who I thought was the main character keeled over and died right away. Good job, Rowling! Compared to the Harry Potter books, The Casual Vacancy seems like impressive literary acrobatics for the author, at least in the department of perspective shifts.
Beyond a few of the prologues in the later Potter books, a close-third person from Harry’s point-of-view is maintained throughout the series. But not here – in the first few pages alone, we meet numerous different characters and process the events of the story through their eyes and varying worldviews. Though this might seem a little clunky and expository at first, it’s actually pretty impressive considering the prose style we’re used to seeing from Rowling.
There’s nothing subtle, and little left to the imagination when it comes to the book’s characters. Everyone’s hair style and coloring is described meticulously, all “coppery brown” or “close cropped.” In fact, so many of these hairstyles were described in such detail, I initially imagined a parade of body-less haircuts ambling through the town. Interestingly, I feel like Rowling still has a distinct knack for writing adolescents, as the first characters I truly started to become interested in were Price family, particularly young Andrew Price. For me, the tone of this character's internal monologue was totally on point.
I also felt like Rowling was oddly more comfortable with the darker characters and situations than she was with some of the politically jockeying that makes up a good portion of the novel’s structure.
A good writer can tell a story effectively and interestingly, painting vivid, coercive pictures in your brain which cause you to turn the pages just so you can keep experiencing new pictures. A great writer can do the exact same thing, but might cause you to want to linger on the pages and appreciate each picture. I suppose if I were to sum up the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction (which I’m forever trying to figure out) it would be that. I’ll read Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story and hang out on the page for awhile. Same with a Roberto Bolano story, and yes, Ray Bradbury.
But J. K. Rowling is a page-turning writer, not a page-lingering writer. She wants you to get through it and onto the next thing. The structure of The Casual Vacancy relies on the denizens of the town trying to figure out what to do about the open council seat left by Barry Fairbrother. And here, I feel like Rowling is in familiar terrority: it’s all about power struggles and who will end up being in charge. Sure, the stakes aren’t as high as the Death Eaters taking over the world, but there were sinister (sometimes one-note) character traits driving the more power-hungry folks in the novel.
Ultimately, my only serious complaint with The Casual Vacancy was one of tone. Because there are so many characters and so many shifts, I feel like the voice of the novel itself was inconsistent. Since Rowling is a get-you-to-the-next-page author, I rarely felt very invested in the feeling of the book. To put it another way, I know what happened in the novel, but I’m not sure I know what the novel was about. I kept being reminded of the recent Stephen Millhauser short story “The Slap,” in which a small town is haunted by one man randomly going up to people and slapping them in the face. Like The Casual Vacancy, the story moves around from person to person in the town, examining the implications of what this slapping spree even means. But with Millahauser (as with many of his stories), the themes he was trying to explore were laid very plain by a consistent emotional tone. Some might say that tone is “flat” or “dark,” but with the small town sociological explorations in “The Slap,” I knew how to feel. With The Casual Vacancy, I don’t.
But maybe you’re not meant to understand how to feel. Maybe this novel is just a snapshot of a weird thing happening in a small town to a bunch of people. And if that is the case, then I can’t really fault it because, as she does with her other books, J. K. Rowling keeps those pages turning.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.