Before reading one word of The Casual Vacancy, I had my theory in place. J. K. Rowling’s first adult novel was described as a look at the social and political mechanisms of a modern-day English village. As a longtime Rowling fan(atic), I know that she — like any novelist worth her salt — is a huge admirer of Jane Austen, often listing Emma as one of her favorite books. My theory was simple: The Casual Vacancy would be Rowling’s modernized version of an Austen novel.
Instead of falling into the trap of expecting Harry Potter, I fell into the equally absurd trap of expecting Jane Austen. The Casual Vacancy starts with a death, which sets the novel’s action in motion. Sense and Sensibility, anyone? The third person narration dips into the minds of a wide range of characters, a style found in Victorian novels such as Middlemarch by George Eliot. After that, my theory completely falls apart.
There are no easy heroes and villains in the town of Pagford. Outside the magical confines of Hogwarts, J. K. Rowling presents a bleak worldview. The townspeople are full of grievances and grudges, and even the characters who aren’t outright villains can display incredible cruelty. Barry Fairbrother’s death has left an open seat on the parish council, and two factions squabble over what should become of an impoverished government housing project. Caught in this web are several teenage characters with no means for escape.
The Casual Vacancy is devastating to read, made all the more so by Rowling’s continued narrative power. I could say many things about this novel, but never that it is poorly written. The characters are vivid in all their hatreds and heartaches. She draws out each social connection with an intricacy worthy of the novelists she admires. The reader understands both sides to almost every relationship, making it all the more affecting. Much like in the real world, there are no easy solutions, and a gain for one person comes at the expense of another.
I admire J. K. Rowling for taking on social injustice with no apologies. The Casual Vacancy won’t make its readers feel uplifted, but it will hopefully make them think. For a writer who was guaranteed a large audience, she has taken a brave stance. I would advise anyone planning to read this book to learn from my mistakes. Don’t expect Harry Potter, obviously, but don’t expect Jane Austen either. This book is something else entirely.