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English department

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Rowling and Reality: The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling delves into a new genre in The Casual Vacancy. Readers expecting another family-friendly Harry Potter saga will by nonplussed by Rowling’s constant use of profanity and explicit, R-rated material. Even so, in The Casual Vacancy, Rowling shines with her insightful character analysis and description.

The Casual Vacancy has a fairly simple plot centered in Pagford, a small town on the outskirts of the English city of Yarvil. Parish Councilman Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm within the first two pages; the remaining five hundred pages deal with the cumulative repercussions of his death on Pagford’s persons and politics. The entire town either suffers or rejoices in the wake of Fairbrother’s death. The backstory is at first reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the character George Bailey is given a glimpse of the cumulative impact he had on his small town by being shown what the town would have been like if he were dead. The comparison is incomplete, however, for in Rowling’s rendition, Fairbrother remains in the grave.

The numerous characters and various plot lines are difficult to follow at first, though as the plot develops, multiple perspectives give the story depth. Character development begins with the description of how individuals discover the news of Fairbrother’s death. “We’ve got ourselves a casual vacancy,” gleefully describes the obese councilman Howard Mollison, “what you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death.” Announcing Fairbrother’s death during a school assembly, Colin Wall is unable to control his emotions and breaks out in sobs. After the characters have been introduced, however, Rowling shifts Barry Fairbrother to the back of the plot and focuses on the interaction and conflict among Pagford’s unique persons. Relationships that appeared perfect from the outside experience strain. Colin’s typically supportive wife “struggle[s] to keep her expression professionally neutral” when Colin announces he has decided to run for Barry’s council seat.

The Casual Vacancy gives a convincing description of the “intricate web of alliances” and relationships that form in small communities. The goal of “presenting an unruffled surface to the world” produces major conflict as the adults squabble over Fairbrother’s council seat and their children vent personal vendettas against their parents on the Parish Council online blog, revealing nasty secrets. Indeed, Rowling makes a fundamental shift from her fantasy world of Harry Potter. In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling struggles to obtain a true view of the basics of reality. The most blatant portrayal is the character of Fats Wall who consistently seeks “the state of authenticity,” pursuing and basing decisions on what he feels to be most real to him.

Although it is a gripping read, I would not recommend The Casual Vacancy, particularly if one is interested in the novel merely for the sake of the author. In her quest to draw stark realistic personalities, Rowling sketches some of her characters as atypically unattractive; indeed, many are difficult to like at all. In particular, father figures are negatively portrayed by Rowling. Plot is fairly limited to character development, and the frame story of Fairbrother’s death and the consequent casual vacancy on the Parish Council is concluded in a remarkably non-climatic manner. Issues of rape, affairs, cutting, pre-marital sex, suicide, drugs and alcohol are explored but unsatisfying in their conclusion. The complex denouement was well done, however, and obtains a broad brush stroke of reality, the culmination of many small strokes of individual endings. Edifying? Certainly not. But if one is interested in the intricacy of human interaction, perhaps Rowling has something to offer in The Casual Vacancy.