BookBin2014: The Casual Vacancy


I suppose that notoriety for a particular “thing” does have a bit of a double edge to it. Yes, you have gained fame (and often great financial stability from said fame), but you also have found yourself pigeon-holed by expectations that you forever continue to be/do said famous “thing.”

Such is the case with J.K. Rowling. After spending more than a decade spinning the tales of Harry Potter and his band of friends and foes at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, she was both quite financially set (richer than the bloody Queen!) and quite pigeon-holed. What do you mean, you don’t want to write about Harry’s adventures anymore? What? You want to…write for adults now?

(Okay, some can very validly argue that she was writing for adults also with the Harry Potter books.)

So, after years of being She Who Must Write Harry Potter Fiction, Rowling decided to hang up her invisibility cloak and set to writing different stories about different people in a completely different style. A style meant for grups.

I have to admit, denizens, that I found this highly disorienting. I sort of expected this response, which is why it took me this long to take a stab finally at Rowling’s novel The Casual Vacancy.

From an objective perspective, Rowling’s first foray into writing for adults? Not bad. Quite decent, actually. She’s rather successfully brought her acumen for planning and outlining intricate plot points in clear language to this novel about the idyllic parish of Pagford and many of its residents. She weaves a detailed tale of the many surface and surprising ways that the sudden death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother impacts the town. She assembles an impressive array of characters and how they connect, impact, influence, irritate, offend, betray, belittle, disappoint, inspire…basically, how they interact with each other in realistic, albeit overly negative ways (Rowling’s commentary on our real-life propensities to too often be utter gits to one another?).

Objectively, this is a fascinating character study from a skilled author, even if it is a bit like a slightly more high-brow, slightly more believable literary equivalent of a soap opera. Rowling’s take on The EastEnders?

Subjectively, I have to confess that I found myself often thinking that the writing was far too blue, far too graphic at times—almost as if Rowling were putting extra effort into distancing herself from those pesky children’s novels. Her teenaged characters, particularly, were in many ways the anti-Potters. Less concerned with the fate of the wizarding world and more concerned with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. Very concerned with these things. Especially the sex. Again, from an objective perspective, the depictions were believable. Subjectively, I kept envisioning Harry and his mates behaving in these ways, and that really skeeved me out.

Additionally, this novel was quite a quiet departure for Rowling, who was our guide through physical adventure, danger, and more with her previous project. In comparison, The Casual Vacancy was…not completely devoid of action. However, most of the action was internal, reflective, mental, solitary, or a combination of these options. Again, it’s not as if nothing happens. Quite the contrary. The book takes us on a definite journey. Rather than provide us with fantastic action for our imaginations, however, Rowling provides us with contemplative discourse on character behaviors that lead us to the ultimate destination of this story (which, admittedly, becomes quite clear well before the denouement).

Final Verdict: I can understand why many found it difficult to warm to Rowling’s first adult novel. As unfair as it might be to Rowling and her talents, it’s very difficult to forget completely that she is Harry Potter’s “mum.” Also, if you were a fan of her Potter novels, it’s going to be very difficult to let go of that wish that this was another entry for that story rather than something new. Objectively, I did enjoy this novel. Subjectively, I kept waiting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione to come in and steal me away for another of their wondrous adventures.

However, I do believe I will give her second adult novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, a proper go. I think it was quite wise of her to publish her second non-Potter book under a pseudonym. I just wish I didn’t know it prior to reading it. I’m afraid I’m going to do the same mental comparisons as I did with this first novel. But we shall see…