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English department

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

It’s not really possible to open The Casual Vacancy without a lot of expectations both high and low crashing around in your brain and distorting your vision. I don’t know if it’s possible or even desirable to avoid them. I know I had a lot of, let’s call them feelings when I opened the book: I have spent many hours reading J.K. Rowling’s work. I am a Harry Potter fan.

But after about 10 pages of The Casual Vacancy, I began to forget about all that stuff and the online rumors about how the book was amazing or awful. I forgot about everything except the pages in front of me. Because I had come under the spell of a great novel.

What surprised me about The Casual Vacancy was not just how good it was, but the way in which it was good. I suppose I’d expected a kind of aged-up, magicked-down Harry Potter, something that showcased the same strengths the Potter books do: meticulous plotting, inventiveness, a love of mischief, likable characters, a knack for visual spectacle. I also expected it to showcase their weaknesses, because all writers have them.

The Casual Vacancy is a different beast entirely. It was not what I was expecting. It’s a ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting, and eloquent novel of England, rich with literary intelligence and people from the pub (CS Lewis would recognize these people from his pub). This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply. It’s as if Rowling wanted (this was deeply upsetting) to craft writing without a gripping plot; this is the weakness of The Casual Vacancy. This book was not meant to be her one and done novel, Rowling is no Harper Lee; Rowling will continue write, and there is a novel in her with plot.

Based on that pitch alone, The Casual Vacancy would seem to be light social satire, a skewering of small-town foibles and hypocrisies, but Rowling has always been more ambitious than that. Her interest is in the emotional and social chasms that yawn between us and the grotesque emotional wounds we inflict on those on the other side, always in the belief that we’re acting in righteous self-defense.

Rowling arranges her characters not in neat opposing ranks but in a complex web. Among the solid citizens we meet are Colin, a neurotic deputy headmaster (and the adoptive father of Fats) who wants to carry on Barry’s work; Howard, a deli owner and the leader of the anti-Fields lobby, who’s as fat and nasty as Vernon Dursley but less funny; Miles, Howard’s son and Barry’s former business partner, whom Howard is grooming for the empty spot; Kay, a social worker who visits families in the Fields, including that of Krystal (she of the splendid breasts), whom Barry coached in rowing. It’s in this intricate Gordian tangle — and that’s about a quarter of the full tangle — that one sees most clearly the patient hand that built Harry Potter’s world, a fictional universe so detailed and believable that an entire generation has pretty much chosen to live there. (No one would choose to live in Pagford. But unfortunately we already do.)

In Pagford, everybody believes they’re the hero of the story, but as the novel’s point of view restlessly shifts, we see each character recast again and again as villain, victim, fool, lover, ally, traitor. The sexually precocious Krystal is a daughter of the Fields, and each side uses her to bludgeon the other: she’s a cautionary tale, a model of educability, a bully, a fiercely loyal sister who is the only thing keeping her family together. (The story of Krystal and her shattered tribe is the most utterly wrenching thing in the book. Her mother Terri is a hopeless heroin addict, and she plays as a villain for much of the book, until Rowling takes us inside her point of view and shows us why she has to get high, at which point the case against her crumbles.) As the vote over the vacancy approaches, the fight descends into a hail of body blows.

It’s rare to see a writer whom you think you know well unfold a new dimension like this, a dimension you didn’t even suspect existed. The Casual Vacancy is, in a funny way, not so much an extension of the Harry Potter books as their negative image: it’s a painfully arbitrary and fallen world, a world that, bereft as it is of the magic that animates and ennobles Hogwarts, sags and cracks under its own weight. After his furtive coupling with Krystal, a melancholy, postcoital Fats “wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom.” Harry would have apparated there. But Fats, like the rest of us, must take the long way home.

Her development of teenage characters always reminds the reader of what it is (was) like to be youthful, and adventurous; Rowling took me on an adventure of rebellion in this story, that bell of rebellion in The Casual Vacancy, rings with mine: rock and roll is the soundtrack to the lives of the people in The Casual Vacancy it is mine too. This is why I liked the novel, and why I would buy it, because it is a movie that could easily be the documentary of any reader’s life. Life is too short, if you do not make time to for ambition (The Casual Vacancy says), you might get trampled on.