The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown & Company, 2012. 512 pp)

J.K. Rowling is the best selling author of the Harry Potter series, which have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide.  As well as an OBE for services to children’s literature, J.K. Rowling is the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees including the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, France’s Légion d’honneur, and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award, and she has been a Commencement Speaker at Harvard University. She supports a wide number of charitable causes through her charitable trust Volant, and is the founder of Lumos, a charity working to transform the lives of disadvantaged children.

A Different Kind of Magic

The only mistake you could make while trying to discern whether or not to read J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, is to assume it to be like Harry Potter. Her newest novel blends in some magic to be certain, but magic of a different kind. Rowling, in The Casual Vacancy, uses the magic of eloquence, profanity, and wit to deeply move the reader.

The setting is a northern English town of Pagford which is ridden with unhappy people. These particular unhappy people do what comes naturally to those stricken with sadness: they masturbate profusely, drink constantly, and smoke like chimneys. They also swear quite a bit. They swear enough to make Harry Potter blush.

At any rate, the problem with the town of Pagford lies not only in its unhappy people, but also in the housing project within called “the Fields”. The Pagford parish council is divided in its thoughts of the projects, some believing “the Fields” should be abandoned and given to another city. Barry Fairbrother, however, believes that “the Fields” should remain part of the beautiful town of Pagford, mostly because he grew up there. However, in the first few pages of the novel, Barry suffers a brain aneurism and dies, leaving an open seat on the council.

The World’s Woe

As Rowling talks of people vying for Fairbrother’s seat, we learn that Rowling is trying to depict the world’s woe at every turn. The reader sees abusive fathers, adulterous husbands, and teenagers who curse, drink, and attempt suicide. Rowling tries to depict the world as it really is, a dark place with dark people, and for that I commend her.

“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God” (88).

The sad reality that Rowling paints is a true one. As humans, Rowling rightly points out, we tend to believe that we are God, that we are in charge, and that this world and its circumstances is one that we can control. However, this isn’t the case. For some, if not most, when we begin to discover that we are fallen people in a sinful, terrible world, we begin to lie to ourselves, convincing ourselves and each other that we are good people. One of the teenagers in the novel, a picked on fat kid aptly nicknamed “Fats” figured this out well.

“The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, were being ashamed of what they were, lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses” (139).

Grim

Not only does this perfect little town have Fats, but a myriad of other disgruntled and disoriented characters. Gavin, Fairbrother’s best friend, is in love with his widow; Krystal, a girl from the projects, and her drugged-up mother, Terri; Andrew, Fats’ disgruntled (yet wise) counterpart; and a ton of local gossips.

While Harry Potter dealt with hope, The Casual Vacancy does quite the opposite, a bold departure from Rowling’s past. Thought the story is grim and sad, it is a deeply accurate portrayal of human weakness, sinfulness, and depravity. Instead of mysticism and wonder, the reader is left with an acute understanding of the world we truly live in, and if this novel is read correctly, you will be, and should be numb by the end. The reader will read of suicide, of rape, of drug addictions, of patricide, of beatings and violent domestic abuse.

The Casual Vacancy isn’t what I expected, and I normally don’t like dismaying tales like what it presented. But, it was so emotionally evocative I can’t help but recommend this new classic from J.K. Rowling.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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