Before I even started reading The Casual Vacancy, I knew that J.K. Rowling’s latest book was going to be extremely different than the seven that took me into the magical world of my teenage years. Aside from the bits and pieces from reviews here and there, the author herself had very clearly stated it was going to be very different from Harry Potter. I’ve never known Rowling to lie, so I took her at her word.
Like most of the Rowling fans out there, I was simply excited a new book was coming out. Of course, I longed for another midnight release party, followed closely by a nonstop cover-to-cover reading of the new book. That experience, though, had been left back with Hogwarts, too. But I was still excited.
As the release date drew nearer, I thought more about the teaser for the book, and started to realize… I generally don’t read books like this. I practically never seek out books that are explicitly “adult” in nature. But the political tone of it did intrigue me a bit, and that was enough to still get me to the bookstore and purchase the book. After just the first few pages, it was immediately clear to me that this was not going to be a book that I would speed through, but would rather have to take much slower. In that first chapter, I honestly wondered to myself, “Am I going to even like this?”
The answer ended up being yes. Definitely.
Though it took me a bit to get used to the writing style, I appreciated and enjoyed so much of Rowling’s approach. Upon completing the book, I absolutely loved it.
So why did I love it? Okay, let’s go.
First off, there’s the large number of characters. I have never read a novel that introduced so many characters, so quickly. But I absolutely loved having such a wide perspective when it came to learning about Pagford. The entire book is a journey you take with each of these characters, rather than just one, and you slowly learn more and more about their lives, both good and bad. The town’s story is not just told by one protagonist; it’s the story of the entire citizenry.
Despite the large number of characters, Rowling successively juxtaposes their lives in the ongoing aftermath of Barry Fairbrother's death. You never lose sight of how these individual lives are so deeply interwoven, and constantly discover new and more intriguing threads to the web that is the small town of Pagord.
Next, Rowling takes an innovative approach with the book’s point of view, and in my opinion, shines with brilliance. In her approach, Rowling refuses to accept orthodox conventions when it comes to splitting up the characters’ perspectives. I’m definitely used to authors starting a new chapter when they want to move from character to character, so the change from this was a bit startling at first. But when I did adjust, I found the method so compelling, and it made the entire story seem much more fluid, rather than a set of broken sections in a broader tale.
The entire book is about how these people in this tiny town react to one another, and how these reactions perpetuate the overall plot. So it makes perfect sense for Rowling to have such a continuous narration that does not limit the perspective to just a couple of characters. The reader begins to get to know these characters so well, that when one of these in-chapter shifts occurs, it feels very natural. I feel this point-of-view approach was absolutely necessary for Rowling given her use of a large array of characters that are much more than secondary stand-ins. One thing that always amazes me about Rowling’s writing is her ability to structure a novel in a way that makes perfect sense. Potter fans saw this through the variation she used throughout the series, and it is definitely the case here. At her interview and reading event in New York City in October, Rowling said one of the most challenging things about this book was getting the structure down. It’s clear she took no shortcuts in this process, and I think it worked out beautifully.
Also, there is a refreshing departure from the binary grouping of good and evil. This is why I absolutely fell in love with the book. In Pagford, no one is perfect. No one is completely good and there are only two characters that could possibly be described as completely bad (as Rowling also discussed in her New York interview). This frustrates some readers. They want someone to cheer who can beat all the odds in the end, and they want the bad guy to meet defeat in the finale. But this is not what readers find in The Casual Vacancy, and this is not what we find in real life.
Reading this book, I felt unbelievably conflicted, trying to determine which characters I aligned myself with and which ones I hated. Eventually, I realized, this internal struggle is intentional. This is the beauty of the book: there is no black and white, but countless regions of gray. Every character does something questionable and for these actions there is a hint of justification, but the reader is left with the question of whether or not the extent of these actions really are justified.
As you read about these characters and the good and bad decisions they make, you struggle with making sense of it all. For me, this is how Rowling really grabbed and pulled me into the story. There were times where I had to pause, put my book down, and sit and think about something a character had just done. I would wonder if it was fair to judge them and even ask myself if I would have reacted the same way.
In shaping this dynamic, Rowling never holds back. When she says adult, she means adult. She was very explicit about this, so you should not go into reading this novel with the hope that it will be anything like even the final stages of the Harry Potter series. It’s not. There are some very mature elements to this novel, and even though the language is at times very candid, I never felt it was being pushed. Reality is not always picturesque or appealing. Horrible things happen to both good and bad people, and Rowling never shies away from honesty.
Finally, the end of the book breaks your heart and leaves its mark. Before reading the book, I had read interviews where Rowling said the end of the book was tragic, and it was likely to send you into tears. As I went through the book, I was very skeptical of this. I figured there was very little that could make me feel sorry about whatever happened to most of these characters, given all of their flaws and poor decisions. But this is what Rowling plays to so well. The more you learn about these characters, the more you want things to get better for them. You see tiny openings where they can actually repair themselves and get back on track. Occasionally, these tiny openings are even used successfully.
But life doesn’t always end happily for everyone, and Rowling plays true to this. I have never felt such an overwhelming flood of varying emotions at the end of a stand-alone novel. Without spoiling the book, there’s a pretty momentous event near the end. While this event draws the story to a close, it’s the reaction to the event, rather than the event itself, that completes the masterpiece. You so desperately want these people to change and become better after everything that happens. Some do in fact make moves toward change, while others simply do not. The final pages are beautifully tragic and impactful. Rowling leaves her readers with a wave of grief, but also an emotional display of heroism.
If you’re prepared to handle mature themes and adult language, The Casual Vacancy is well worth the read.