Open up the back cover to any J.K. Rowling book and you’ll read about the many accomplishments that have catapulted her to fame and fortune: author of the Harry Potter series which has sold over 450 million copies worldwide and inspired eight hit films and three supplemental works, translated into 73 languages. She is an Order of the British Empire for services to children’s literature and winner of the Hans Christian Anderson Award, among many other distinctions. This year, Rowling dives into the opposing genre of adult literature in her newest novel, The Casual Vacancy, a story about Pagford, a small English town thrown into chaos following the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, its parish leader who others looked to for reason. Vacancy is a lengthy 500-page character-driven drama that focuses primarily on the ugliness of human nature when glimpsed through the lens of everyday life. However, those with high expectations from the author of the best-selling book series in history will be sadly disappointed.
The story opens with Fairbrother’s sudden death and the subsequent opening of the coveted top spot on the parish council that provides the namesake “casual vacancy.” His political rivals see this as their opportunity to take control of Pagford’s local government and finally remove the shameful stain from their pristine town, an area of trailer-trash proportions just on the outskirts of Pagford called “The Fields.” With deliciously coincidental allusions to our own presidential election, the late Fairbrother’s supporters work to save the social welfare programs that benefit the poor wretches of The Fields while the opposing force vies to cut these and The Fields out of its agenda, stating that its inhabitants are moochers who “have never worked a day in their lives.” However, this conflict is merely the backdrop for the greater tumult of mudslinging, gossip and secret abuses that the citizens of Pagford both commit and endure. Between and within families, duplicity and insincerity reign free, ultimately culminating in another town-wide tragedy that reawakens the citizens from their petty squabbles and provides a half-hearted and temporary return to morality and concern for thine fellow man.
As far as I’m concerned, the only “casual vacancy” that I see here is that of an actual plot. Vacancy has none of the elements that made the Potter series such a page-turner; magic notwithstanding, this includes suspense, likable characters and an apparent problem that needs to be resolved. The story is painfully slow, leading up to a climax that hardly merited the 450 prior pages. The main flaw here is too many characters, and lackluster ones at that. The one dimensional personae are extremely unlikeable, as their nature is to succumb to fettering insecurities. All in all, Vacancy is told from the viewpoint of about 17 different characters, with occasional input from several minor ones. Rowling seems to have underestimated the task of committing to so many personages and simultaneously tying them all into one plot in meaningful ways (see George R.R. Martin for how to do this properly). She succeeds with some and utterly fails with others, offering the readers glimpses into unimportant viewpoints and creating seemingly “filler” chapters which could have been cut out without affecting the direction of the story. For example, one character’s actions and thoughts seemed recycled in each chapter. It becomes a tedious bore to read from his point of view and, in the end, it all seems for naught. His purpose seems to have been simply to exist as another character’s unrequited love.
Rowling tries too hard to be “real,” to depict life and human nature as it actually is — every man for himself, cruel, nitty-gritty and imperfect. She attempts to get this theme across with the use of every social dysfunction in the book, turning this story into a veritable Degrassi for adults, a literal drama about life drama. Throughout every drawn-out chapter, we see dysfunctional relationships, extramarital affairs, unprotected teenage lust, rape, heavy drug-use, self-mutilation, domestic violence, suicide, neurosis, OCD as well as hints at pedophelia, if I’ve named them all. The problem is that Rowling doesn’t give these issues any real depth, making them seem cliché after each passing introduction. The end of this series of one-shots — the death of two children — leaves the reader worn-out and confused. With their death, Pagford’s citizens are shocked back to equilibrium: Family ties are strengthened temporarily and psychological problems are kept at bay. It’s a resolution for all 17 characters that is rushed in about 50 pages.
I could tell you not to read this book, but you won’t listen. I mean, it’s J.K. Rowling for crying out loud. Of course you’d feel an itch to purchase any prose that she creates with her magic wand/pen, and I won’t blame you. You’ll find glimpses of her usual style here and there, short chapters and sometimes the occasional awkward sentence from which she is forgiven on the sole fact that she is the J.K. Rowling, creator of your childhood dreams for a Hogwarts acceptance letter. You might find echoes of the Dursleys here and there, yet their abusive guardianship style would be ramped up about 10 levels. Just be forewarned that this one is not a page-turner. It is fitting to revise the aforementioned compliment and call Rowling a children’s storytelling master. She has me unconvinced that she can articulately handle adult situations without mish-mashing them all together in a ball of social and psychological disorders and calling it “real life.” Whereas Rowling excels in fantasy, transporting us to another world where magic is a given and the impossible is possible, her depiction of a real world is almost too drab, depressing and loveless. The Casual Vacancy merits a C in my book, but it could be worse. At the very least, it’s no Twilight.