Book review: Rowling moves beyond magic in ‘The Casual Vacancy’

By Leanna B. Ehrlich

As a young girl, I wanted nothing more than for kitschy souvenir shops to sell, among their vast array of mugs and friendship bracelets, an item with my name pre-printed on it. Every Jessica and Ashley of the world got to have these, I moped, but I would have to suffer the repeated disappointment of never, ever seeing my name appear among 100 others on identical Statue of Liberty keychains.

My sense of name inferiority finally disappeared in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” when J.K. Rowling introduced one minor character, Leanne, Katie Bell’s friend. No, it wasn’t exactly my name, but who cared. If “Leanne” was a name worth including in the same paragraph as Harry and Hermione, I might as well have been a wizard.

It’s still possible to connect with “The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s latest tome, but the grounds of connection are surprising in their immediacy to everyday life. She accompanies a funeral with Rihanna and Jay-Z’s song “Umbrella” instead of Dumbledore’s phoenix dirge, explores teenage sexuality through internet porn and unprotected sex rather than love potions, and even replaces Quidditch with crew. Yet through it all, some constants remain: a deft skewering of small-town life, youthful disillusionment, and a character named Leanne. Only the Leanne of “A Casual Vacancy” is not walking back from Hogsmeade with Katie Bell. She’s the best friend of Krystal Weedon, a promiscuous, foul-mouthed child of a welfare heroin addict. We hear you loud and clear, J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter, this isn’t.

It nevertheless remains nearly impossible to read, analyze, and absorb “The Casual Vacancy” without invoking Harry Potter. How do you turn the page on a cultural milestone and open to a small town in southwest England, where the greatest drama involves a local election rather than a corporeal force of evil? Rowling’s tendency to rely on excessive adjectives and adverbs has lessened, yet she retains just enough of this trademark style to enliven descriptions: “The sky was a cold iron-gray, like the underside of a shield.”

This iron-gray sky lies over Pagford, a provincial town in the shadow of its larger neighbor, Yarvil. The story opens at the death of Barry Fairbrother, more an idea than a man, whose quest for social justice and equality reaches beyond the grave. His death leaves a gaping hole on a divided town council, and various citizens hurry to fill his shoes and exert their influence over the fiery controversy du jour: the inclusion of an area of low-income housing, The Fields, in Pagford’s upper-crust school district. This social commentary forms an intelligent backdrop against which to parade and judge a score of characters. From this unsuspectingly common premise, Rowling artfully exposes the intricacies of human relations with a colorful, memorable set of players.

Fraught with duplicity, seething with anger, and at times starkly hopeless, the citizens of Pagford often appear more as caricatures than realistic people. At times, indeed, the narrative feels overstuffed. Rowling careens from one third person limited point of view to another; this is certainly a more holistic approach than her singular focus on Harry, but at times the array of characters is dizzying (though Rowling helps the reader out by periodically repeating their names and occupations).

All these perspectives do not always serve the story well. The beauty of Harry Potter was its single-minded devotion to the end battle. Any side adventure that occurred was almost always in service of a greater narrative. “The Casual Vacancy” may be significantly more adult in its content, but Rowling risks losing readers along the way due to narrative offshoots. The book could have benefitted from a more condensed focus, yet Rowling’s ambition to fully explore the disparate lives of so many characters is admirable in its scope. Several books could have been written about the most compelling ones—adventurous and outspoken Fats, self-destructive yet compassionate Krystal, pimpled and besotted Andrew, corpulent and corrupt Howard, steely and driven Parminder, and the elusive, deified Barry Fairbrother.

If Rowling’s goal was to expose how different worlds can haplessly intersect, she’s done her job. She has frequently stated her adamant support of social welfare, and perhaps partially informed by her own pre-Potter bout with poverty, Rowling’s descriptions of privation, neglect, and drug abuse are often shocking in their audacious power of prose. “But she had seen far worse,” thinks Kay, a social worker, “welts and sores, gashes and burns, tar-black bruises; scabies and nits; babies lying on carpets covered in dog shit; kids crawling on broken bones; and once (she dreamed of it, still), a child who had been locked in a cupboard for five days by his psychotic stepfather.”

Rowling seems nearly to wink at her Harry Potter fanbase with this cupboard reference—“Think Uncle Vernon was abusive, do you?” she might be asking. “This is the real world.” Harry Potter was an introduction, through the lens of magic and ultimate happiness, to momentary loss, disappointment, and death. Here, though, when a relative, spouse, or friend is gone, they’re lost forever. Characters may have jarringly conspicuous access to the latest technology, but with no Resurrection Stone, “Priori Incantatem” spell, or Mirror of Erised at their disposal, this new treatment of death is decidedly harsher.

The final Harry Potter book was released four days before my 15th birthday. I was living in Chile for the summer and anxiously journeyed to the nearest mall to get the book. Dawn crept through the curtains as I finished it the next morning. It hadn’t been released in Spanish yet, and my host siblings begged the main details out of me the second I was done reading.

I nonchalantly bought “The Casual Vacancy” two days after it appeared in stores. It took me three days to read rather than a night—the driving tension, both on my part and on Rowling’s, simply was not there. Rowling, however, is not a one-hit wonder. Darkness, redemption, and even humor are more layered and complex in her latest effort. But the “Potter” cohort is grown up and probably ready to spend more than one night digesting the moral maelstroms of a book. A fast read isn’t always the best read. “The Casual Vacancy” has its moment of gut-wrenching horror, finely sketched characters, and steady-handed authorial intention. Rowling can’t babysit the literate youth of the world forever; finally, she drops the hand holding for a hard but welcome slap of reality.

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