November Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

I was a bit wary of reading J. K. Rowling’s new book,The Casual Vacancy. Being a long-time fan of theHarry Potter series — in my opinion, the hype surrounding the series is completely justified and well-deserved — I knew that anything Rowling wrote next would, in all likelihood, pale in comparison. But while comparing The Casual Vacancy to the Harry Potter series might be inevitable, it is the wrong way to go about reading this book.

The world Rowling creates in The Casual Vacancy is as different from the magical world of Harry Potter as it could be. It is as steeped in reality as the Harry Potter series is removed from it. There are no wizards brandishing wands or evil lords rising from the dead. Instead, there are ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Instead of a grand battle between good and evil, there are deeply flawed characters struggling to rise above their own weaknesses. And it is the masterful way Rowling gets inside each of these characters that makes this book remarkable.

The story begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the local council in the quaint little town of Pagford. His sudden death affects the lives of nearly everyone in Pagford, as his seat at the council — a ‘casual vacancy’ — needs to be filled and it is understood that whoever gets Fairbrother’s seat will play a decisive role in the future of the Fields. The council has to decide whether to allow the Fields — a rundown area of Pagford that is characterised by its poverty-stricken, drug-addicted inhabitants — to remain in their own jurisdiction: some of its more affluent citizens would rather shuffle it off to a neighbouring town because they feel that it is ruining the town’s image as a picture-perfect idyll.

The local elections that follow and the ugly political shenanigans which come with it merely serve as a backdrop against which Rowling explores the lives of a wide variety of characters — from the small-minded and self-satisfied members of the rich Mollison family who are quick to pass judgment on everyone in town to the well-intentioned but ultimately flawed Walls family that is battling with its own demons. There is the abusive father, the drug-addled mother, the rebellious teenager. But none of the characters are caricatures or one-dimensional stereotypes. It does take some time for the reader to get to know all the characters and their connection to one another, but because of the distinct voice each one of them possesses, they soon evolve into well-rounded, realistic people with their own unique set of charms and flaws. The multiple-perspective technique, which Rowling employs here, could have been choppy or jarring, but the transitions are executed smoothly. Most of the characters, however, are quite unlikeable; they are all, to varying degrees, monstrous people with seemingly no redeemable characteristics. Yet, at the same time, they contain a quintessentially human quality so that even if you don’t agree with their thoughts or actions, they do eventually succeed in gaining your sympathies.

Ironically, the very strength of the novel — the development of its characters — is also the novel’s biggest weakness. Rowling spends a considerable length of the book setting up the characters and their lives at the expense of the plot, which does not move forward for nearly 300 pages or so. For this reason, some might find it difficult to plod through the slower parts of the novel. However, even during these parts there is a sense of certain tensions building. The climax is handled brilliantly. Rowling describes events with a quiet devastation that never veers into melodrama. There are no neatly tied up endings to the many conflicts explored, but each character is given just enough resolution as is realistic.

Rowling’s attempt to portray life in all its gritty, sometimes even vile, reality fills this book with a lot of adult content. There is a lot of foul language, sex and violence. Nevertheless, it is not gratuitous, merely added for the sole purpose of reiterating the fact that this is an adult novel; it does not feel gimmicky. On the contrary, it helps present a rather raw and honest picture of life, where all of these things can be found in great abundance. Rowling explores some very grim themes in the novel, including rape, drug addiction and physical abuse, but it never feels contrived.

Ultimately, The Casual Vacancy is not for those who want fast-paced action or thrills. It is a quiet, character-driven drama, written in a clear and even style that is characteristic of Rowling’s writing. And while it does not come close to the brilliance of the Harry Potter series, it does effectively work as an insight into the human mind — proving that Rowling’s writing is magical, even when there is no magic.

This review was originally published in the November issue under the headline “The Return of Rowling.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.