REVIEW: Rowling’s ‘Casual Vacancy’ hits hard but falls short of expectations

Kassondra Cloos
The Pendulum

There may not be anything magical about the tiny town of Pagford, where spells and wands are replaced by curse words and gestures never seen from any of J.K. Rowling’s previous characters, but the author hasn’t lost her touch.

It’s unfair to compare “The Casual Vacancy” with the likes of “Harry Potter,” but it’s also impossible to separate Rowling from the series. It’s particularly challenging to let go of the hope that there will be some magic when the voices of the narrators are practically identical.

“The Casual Vacancy” is about a small town where internal battles among family and frenemies are masked by the overarching political scramble to fill a councilman’s seat vacated by death. Casual.

Of course, Rowling’s vocabulary has gotten quite a bit more colorful as she has attempted to distinguish herself as a versatile writer. But harping on the specific words she’s penned for the first time doesn’t do justice to the complicated web she has weaved, putting the reader inside the mind of every character and showing, from various angles, how each person’s choices, actions and words can have dramatic — even deadly — consequences on another’s life.

Yes, there are some tough topics in the book. Rowling goes down the list and checks off rape, death (of all kinds), drug addiction, cradle-robbing, mental disorders, child and spousal abuse, teenage sex, adult sex and many other heavy-hitters that often appear alone in other books, somber enough by themselves.

But, perhaps more importantly, Rowling expertly tackles pettiness, selfishness, vicious gossip and true hardship. It takes her a little while to fully entrance the reader, but the last part of the book is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. It’s highly predictable, seems to unfold far too quickly and many conflicts go unresolved. Rowling’s point, though, is not lost.

In detailing the lives of Pagford’s “finest” citizens, Rowling draws stark parallels with reality. The most shocking characters are not those who shoot up or slap their children around, but those who unashamedly take pleasure in others’ unhappiness, and even seek to instigate it.

These are the kinds of crimes that often go unpunished in our own world. It’s quite plausible Rowling has used her position as a powerful author to ask us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and, please, for the love of the innocent victims we either don’t see or just plain ignore, soften our hearts even the slightest bit.

The book probably won’t get much love once the initial flock of Rowling fanatics has bought its fair share of copies, and it’s easy to see that it’s being read for its author, not for its content. Even though the storyline is unique, Rowling approaches it with a simplistic, almost childlike attitude that makes it easy to forget it’s meant for adults.

The characters are complex and mostly well-developed, but there are quite a few of them. Almost too many, it seems, for it takes the reader at least 100 pages, if not more, to fully get into the story and remember who everyone is. Barring the infamous Weedon family and the late councilman, Barry Fairbrother, it would not be a travesty to pick one character at random and delete him or her from the story.

Ultimately, the book is a grown-up version of Dr. Seuss’ “Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo!” where, spoiler alert, a long list of tragedies is attributed to a little bug that sneezed a very large sneeze. “The Casual Vacancy” is just that: a tale of one domino knocking down the next.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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