The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowling
He’s going to tell the story about Barry meeting Mary, once he’s got past this kid stuff…happy childhood, high jinks, yeah, yeah…Come on, move it along….
Let’s get on with it for fuck’s sake. Please.
Let me make something exceptionally clear: this is not Harry Potter, nor did I expect it to be. Yes, I absolutely adored those delicious novels, reading the last five hardbacks cover to cover on their release days. No, I do not own any robes or wands. I’ve never visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, even though it’s a stone’s throw away.
I eagerly awaited Rowling’s first adult novel, a story set in a world entirely bereft of anything resembling dragons or sorcery. And when it was done, it was indeed a tale entirely bereft of magic—including the literary kind. Rowlings tedious small-town morality tale is filled with bleak, vapid characters, warped inside and out. If anyone else’s name had graced the cover, I would have set the novel aside after the first fifty pages.
As the story opens, Parish Councilman Barry Fairweather drops dead, at the unripe age of forty, in the golf club car park. Guilt, subdued chest-beating, and immense grief (both real and feigned) spread like the plague through the townsfolk in his “idyllic” village of Pageford. The middle-class town has the requisite hilltop abbey, cobbled streets, and quaint town square, but inside the charming cottages lurk characters floundering in misery. The divisive topics about town are the possible redistricting of the drug-filled public housing neighborhood called The Fields and the shuttering of the local methadone clinic. Fairweather’s sudden demise creates a vacancy on the council and the heads of the Price, Mollison, and Wall families vie for his position so they can prove themselves to be “big men” about town and overcompensate for their flaccid marriages.
Wait, no—they don’t vie—they whimper, cheat, beat their kids, and wallow in self-doubt, acting less mature than their teenagers (somehow they all conveniently have children about the same age) who are engaging in their own dreary suburban dramas. Except there’s not much drama. Not much plot. Not much going on at all except for drawn-out character studies. And the characters are ugly. Each is miserable, desperate, wrangling with ambiguous morals, and so unlikable I could garner little sympathy for a single one. Nor were they particularly entertaining. I often wanted to reach inside the pages and bitch slap many of them.
The story gained a breath of momentum about two-thirds of the way through, and I was determined to plow through it to see if any of the characters managed to find redemption or if they’d sink deeper into soul-sucking pits of their own making. The story ends the only way it possibly could, leaving me only slightly satisfied, yet thoroughly dismayed by the stupidity and selfishness of the characters. It’s not to be read on a gloomy day.
I shall also reiterate that is a novel for ADULTS, or at least ambitious, mature teens. There’s callous teen sex, rape, drug abuse, far too much graphic domestic violence, and parents so rotten it seems they want to destroy their children in every way possible. As an ex-social worker, the world Rowling exposes is nothing new to me, but it may be excruciatingly uncomfortable to the average suburbanite reader. Or maybe it won’t be. Perhaps that’s her point. Perhaps Rowling is revealing glimpses into the world she inhabited before she earned more money than The Queen, the reality she escaped from through her H.P. realm.
I’m all for escapism. This book isn’t it.
It IS an example of how no outsiders can understand the mysteries of any particular marriage, how kids from good families can go bad, and how what goes on behind tidy doors in the proper part of town is likely to be as dysfunctional and morally bankrupt as the tragedies infesting the forsaken ‘hood. If you can muddle through it, the novel is also a blatant political narrative, juxtaposing personal responsibility with societal obligations in a time when many countries are facing austerity measures and drastic social program cuts.
While I admire Rowling’s bravery, I simply could not be drawn into the trite dynamics. This book was not poorly written like, say, Fifty Shades of Grey—that would be like comparing Devonshire cream to cherry-flavored cream in a spray can. It just wasn’t as compelling or interesting as other novels filled with unlovable, even awful characters (such as The Chocolate Money or Menage) recently reviewed here. I still feel slightly guilty that I couldn’t muster a tear, and I set the book down feeling casually vacant.
Borrow it if you don’t want your local library to feel guilty about the hundreds of copies they purchased expecting a blockbuster. Or if you are desperately curious about what Ms. Rowling has been up to and fully accept that this book is an entirely different genre than her “other stuff.” Bypass it if you want to see good overcome evil or you’re not particularly fond of tedious character studies about petty Englishmen with souls deadened by small-town life.
The Casual Vacancy
Little, Brown and Company
$35 (hardcover), $17.99 (Kindle), 512 pages