In February 2012, fans of the fantasy book and movie series “Harry Potter” received news that J.K. Rowling would publish another book. Their enthusiasm was slightly dampened by confusion when Rowling said she had switched over to writing for adults.
“The Casual Vacancy,” released on Sept. 27, is about an idyllic town that significantly changes after the death of well-known councilor Barry Fairbrother. Barry’s death results in a ‘casual vacancy,’ an empty spot on the Pagford council.
Eventually the townspeople must decide on who should replace the deceased. Most importantly, the inheritor of Barry’s seat would determine the fate of the Fields, a housing project that is a blemish on the perfect façade of sleepy Pagford.
The fight for the seat leads to what Little, Brown and Company had described as “the biggest war the town has yet seen.” However, what the novel’s summary boasts is not fulfilled because the plot falls flat.
Each chapter consists of different characters’ coping with Barry’s death and the imminent voting that would change the town. Naturally, one would think more characters would add plenty of colors to the plot. The saying is: “The more, the merrier.” Yet, this gets repetitive and monotonous.
Crammed into the first 350 pages are descriptions of the town of Pagford and day-to-day thoughts of too many characters to count. The rest of the 500-paged novel details the characters’ emotional unraveling. Loyalties are reconsidered. Families break apart. Posts revealing secrets about the running candidates slowly appear on the Pagford council’s website and further enrage locals when the user’s name is The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.
Harry Potter fans might resort, out of sheer boredom, to comparing this novel to the beloved series, but the only comparable aspect is a Vernon Dursley doppelganger named Howard Mollison, who is a pot-bellied, lecherous councilman with an abhorrence for the Fields. His wife Shirley, a gossiper, most definitely fits the mold of Vernon’s horse-faced wife, Petunia Dursley. Otherwise, Rowling does succeed in separating herself from her bestselling series.
Though the plot falls flat and characters crowd the novel’s pages, Rowling deserves praise for her story-telling; she has the sought-after ability to conjure (see what happened there?) a different world. Sadly, this fictional world is just not as interesting as the wizarding world.
When Rowling said this was an adult novel, she was definitely correct. Within the first hundred pages of “The Casual Vacancy,” the story branches into topics of sex, drugs and affairs. One sexually frustrated wife fantasizes about the men in town. The son of the local school’s headmaster fornicates with the daughter of a drug-addicted woman from the Fields. Every curse word in the dialogue causes a jolt, a sheer indication that Rowling has, in fact, moved on.
Recently, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in England, Rowling said she would return to writing a children’s book. Perhaps this might be a better choice for Rowling.