If there were any doubts that J. K. Rowling could leave behind the family fantasy world of Harry Potter, these were banished from anyone’s mind on page fifteen of The Casual Vacancy: “Like f**k he does, the c**t”, sixteen-year-old Andrew thinks to himself. Clearly, this is no Hogwarts. Rowling’s first novel for adults steers very clear of her previous territory, but in many ways this serves to demonstrate that her astounding literary success is most definitely due to her imagination, rather than style. This is no argument to say she is a bad writer, but The Casual Vacancy would almost certainly not have been in the top fifteen bestsellers of the year if there had been no Harry Potter. In her move to realism and social commentary, Rowling has produced a decent read with strong characters, but its plot and style are a little try-hard and the result is distinctly average.
A portrayal of social differences, prejudice and petty small-town politics, The Casual Vacancy begins with a death – and it gets less cheerful from then on, with depictions of child abuse, drug addiction, illness, rape, cyber-bullying, racism, self-harm, suicide and mental illness. These are tough issues to tackle, and Rowling faces them head-on and brutally. Yet they also require subtlety, even when being hard-hitting, and this is where Rowling falls down: it is almost as if she is shouting, “Look! A book for adults! I don’t just write books for kids! Look, I’m writing about ISSUES!” Yes, we get it. Of course, the gritty portrayal of ‘The Fields’ is an everyday reality for many people and the hypocrisy and prejudice of the Pagford characters is disturbing. However, in forcing so much into one novel, these issues stick out as plot devices intended to shock or morbidly thrill, rather than being a useful exploration of genuine social problems and the effects they have.
Rowling’s characterisation has always been the strength in her work, and it remains so here: for all the wacky magic of the wizarding world, it is the people she created that captured the world’s imagination, and once again Rowling draws rounded and interesting characters with ease. Some are detestable (Obbo, certainly), few are loveable, others waver on the boundary (Fats, most notably). The internal monologues are invaluable to these swift and skilled characterisations, showing the intolerance, uncertainty, fear and desire behind the masks of these social circles, and the sections of the novel which follow Andrew Price and Samantha Mollinson are particularly enjoyable, combining humour with fear and frustration. Yet overall it is troubled teenager Krystal Weedon who emerges as the most attractive figure of the work, as she possesses a spark and vitality which the novel itself lacks.
If only Rowling could deal with Krystal’s story as well as she deals with her character. Her personality is given warmth and life, yet the heart-wrenching and sometimes nauseating difficulties she faces appear a little shallow, without quite enough development or testing to prove truly affecting. In particular, her rape is harrowing, yet is barely explored beyond moving the plot in a certain direction, which lends the episode an almost offensive crassness. Other moments, such as Sukhvinder’s torment and self-harm, are given more subtle development; but Rowling is not consistent in her ability to handle these major themes, with the result that some can appear thoughtless inclusions – try-hard in their presence, but weak in their effect. The novel asks a number of big questions of the society which Rowling has placed under the microscope, yet with her somewhat patchy blurred lens, her novel does not give us many answers to ponder.
This said, The Casual Vacancy did keep me turning the pages to the end, curious as to how this melange of characters would resolve their tangled lives. Yet this is a solid enough read but not a powerful one, and certainly not one that reaches the meteoric levels of success to which Rowling has always been connected. In attempting to take on some intense and complex issues, the novel still somehow feels unadventurous, as it backs away from real, deep explorations. It is hard to argue with the cover’s claim that it is “The work of a storyteller like no other”; however, this particular story is like many others and will attract attention for its author’s name rather than any particular originality or brilliance.