BOOK REVIEW: J.K. Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy


BY DANIELLE HAGERTY With The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has mothballed — for now anyway — the unicorns and death-eaters to explore the magic-less tragedies of ordinary lives. It’s set in a charming English village full of drama and intrigue. It’s also quite complicated, a lattice of contentions and conflict stretched over 500 hundred pages. And definitely PG. In her first foray into the Potter-free realm of young adult fiction, Rowling explores themes and subject matter which are distinctly not suitable for children: drug use, rape, and violent physical abuse are just a few of the mature topics broached in the book. Presumably the bulk of her fan base has matured enough to handle the darker side of being a grown-up.

When Barry Fairbrother, head of Pagford’s Parish Council, dies suddenly of an aneurysm, it triggers a competition to fill the newly emptied position that divides the town. As the competition proceeds, disturbing secrets about the competitors, as well as other prominent figures of Pagford, appear mysteriously on the council’s website. Fairbrother casts a long shadow over the town, and all the many characters and their various subplots always lead back to him. There’s Tessa Wall, who spends the whole book acting as human firewall between her emotionally unstable husband, Colin, and coolly defiant son, Stuart, or “Fats.” There’s Samantha Mollison, who has sexual fantasies about almost every man besides her husband, Miles, who is now competing for the head Council position.

Then there’s Krystal Weedon, a teenaged instigator who desperately tries to cure her mother’s heroin addiction in order for the family to be able to keep custody of the youngest child, Robbie. A long way from Hogwarts, to be sure, but Rowling can’t help but giver her characters a certain Petunia-and Vernon-Dursley muggleness — haughty, nosey people who care far too greatly about the business of other people’s lives. Still, the book is stuffed with compelling, cleanly drawn characters with adult problems that can’t be solved with a wand. Readers may pick up The Casual Vacancy because of Harry Potter, but what will keep them from putting it down is Rowling’s limpid prose and capacity to convincingly take you into a another world, be it magical or not.