Make no mistake, there is no magic in Pagford. In fact, the small town is a long, long way from Hogwarts, as far away from the school as “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling could possibly imagine. “The Casual Vacancy,” J.K. Rowling’s first foray outside the world of children’s literature, contains none of the phenomenal world of wizardry from her previous seven novels. “The Casual Vacancy” is a disappointment for those looking for magic, but weaves its own sort of spell for those interested in the drama of the residents of small town Pagford.
Given that Hogwarts as an environment is so compelling, it is a shocking departure to wind up in Pagford. The town is small, the drama ultimately seems meaningless, and the people are more petty than the Dursleys. Rather than the enchanting backdrop of “Harry Potter,” a setting which informs and delights any readers of the series, Rowling writes “The Casual Vacancy” to allow the reader to forget Pagford entirely and instead examine the petty, selfish people who live within (and without) the town’s limits. This is truly Rowling’s goal, and it is effective in focusing all attention on the characters she crafts.
Unfortunately, in her effort to eliminate the extraneous, Rowling loses the chance to craft a carefully knit plot. The book is not about anything in particular aside from its characters. The novel begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a figure in local politics. The remaining 500 pages of narrative cover the attempts to fill his vacancy in the town’s council. Fairbrother had his share of friends and enemies, and those running to take his now-empty chair face their share of the social politics.
Fairbrother, a proponent of helping the impoverished families in a neighborhood just outside of Pagford, leaves the contentious issue of who gets to be part of the town and if growing up on the wrong side of the fence should be enough to lose access to addiction treatment, schools, and social activities. This hugely political question, the crux of the debate for those trying to fill his seat, is asked again and again over the course of the novel.
Reading about a tedious town with vapid people all quibbling about a small election that really won’t change much, even in their isolated community, can get dull at times. The stakes of the election shift throughout reading, though, and the two-dimensional town fills with three-dimensional characters who all have something to hide. It is in these secrets that Rowling excels, holding attention because of the desire to understand the people she has created. A girl from a broken home, prone to fighting at school and swearing at her drug-addicted mother, becomes more a sympathetic figure than the elderly woman who volunteers her time and prioritizes her marriage above all else. A teenage boy lies to destroy his family and it is justified, it is okay because of the insight into his mind that Rowling allows.
“The Casual Vacancy” is advertised as a book about a small town, but that is not it at all. It is a book about human selfishness, stupidity, and failure. And that is slow reading, on top of being emotionally heavy. Instead of being a triumph in storytelling, the narrative becomes a clustered thread of plot-lines in morally grey areas. It is exhausting because even those characters championing the right answers to the political questions the book raises are impossible to like.
The prose oscillates between overly flowery and overly frank, hitting the perfect balance at points to deliver stunningly sentimental lines. For a book about politics, maybe it is too emotional. For a book about emotions, it is definitely too mundane. But the story Rowling is telling is about how these human emotions motivate failings that resonate politically and socially, and she builds that story with honest, relatable moments. But for every “It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?” that will have the reader nodding along with sympathy, there is an equally frank discussion of sagging breasts or used and discarded condoms.
There are no witches and wizards, and Rowling does not even give the reader a villain to hate. She instead dissects the minds of people from eight separate households until every action can be explained by the motivation we know the character to have. The end of the novel comes like a car crash in slow motion- unavoidable and tragic, though it could’ve been avoided at any point in time if any of the dozen-odd narrators had changed their course.
Putting the book down after finishing the last page, it is easy to feel hollowed by the grim insight into human character. It is about as far from the “all was well” conclusion readers have seen from Rowling as she could possibly write. But “The Casual Vacancy” ties together so brilliantly, the dull beginning and two-dimensional town can be forgiven for its brutally heart-wrenching end. While it is not the book for a reader who will not be in it until the very end, it is a masterpiece in its own right.
I would recommend “The Casual Vacancy” to a patient reader who can follow a dizzying number of characters through mundane moments. It is a slow read, and it requires quite a bit of attention, but the payoff is worth it. Whatever you do, though, do not expect it to be “Harry Potter.”