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English department

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

From the outside, Pagford looks like an idyllic English town, straight from a Victorian novel—complete with a picturesque abbey, quaint houses and shops. In Howard’s view, Pagford “shone with a kind of moral radiance…as though the collective soul of the community was made manifest in its cobbled streets, its hills, its picturesque houses.” But on the inside, warfare is raging between the people who dwell in Pagford. Spiteful grudges, hostile family relations, and bitter political rivalries rage after the death of Barry Fairbrother, who was a member of the Parish Council. After his death, candidates hurry to build their campaigns to take his empty seat—partisan factions develop between those who support the local estate, “the Fields,” and those who do not.

But despite this unique and unusual premise, for fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series eager to read her newest novel The Casual Vacancy, disappointment and disillusionment are likely to result. The fact that Rowling is the author will be the sole reason many people will choose to read The Casual Vacancy.

But while some of Rowling’s inventiveness, creativity, and descriptive writing in Harry Potter are still apparent in her new novel, there are also significant differences that will be sure to disenchant many of Rowling’s avid fans. The coarse language and pervasive vulgarity in the book is very disappointing. The characters—most of whom are unlikable, vile and decadent—are substantially less memorable and intriguing than Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

But Harry Potter comparisons aside, Rowling’s foray into realistic fiction should be judged primarily on its own merit, rather than critiqued based on expectations created by her previous works.

The Casual Vacancy appears to be one gigantic metaphor for the great gulf fixed between people’s pretenses, and the mucky, concealed truth hidden on the inside. Pagford is reminiscent of the Pharisees; whitewashed sepulchers, clean and pretty on the outside, dirty and rotten on the inside. Rowling excavates the inside of the tomb, probing the foibles and dark secrets of each character. If it weren’t for Rowling’s third-person omniscient narration, readers would be oblivious to Samantha’s caustic hatred of Shirley, Kay’s vexation with Gavin, Andrew’s intense hatred of Simon and secret infatuation with Gaia, and Fats’ fixation with “being authentic.”

Rowling’s omniscient third-person narration is a positive aspect of the book. This perspective allows Rowling to add layers of complexity to each of the characters, and develop many interrelationships; it also gives readers a bird’s eye glimpse of the plot and characters, and deep insight into the complexities therein.

The prose and vivid writing style of The Casual Vacancy makes the book enjoyable to read, even when likable characters and plot are lacking. Rowling’s imagery and vibrant sentences pays great dividends in the story: “Colin had a habit of making sweeping judgments based on first impressions, on single actions. He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own.” Rowling’s slick word choice throughout the novel oftentimes seems to be unimpeachable, and it adds to the masterful prose with which she knits the story together.

But overall, the positives of The Casual Vacancy are hindered by its many negative aspects. The book is bogged down by the dark, depressing, and dismal portrait it paints of Pagford. The vulgarity and depravity is rampant and explicit. The foul language is ubiquitous; the graphic depictions of vice in the book are off-putting and tiresome. The nastiness and pettiness of the characters is exasperating.

But it seems as if Rowling might have purposefully created unlikable characters in order to spawn conflict, develop drama, and unearth the characters’ grotesque imperfections behind the idyllic façade of Pagford. Rowling’s novel seems to be a grim, satirical commentary on society and culture, particularly those hamlets in this English countryside so often romanticized by urbanites.

What starts as a story about a man’s death, ends with an even more grim and depressing conclusion of death and bereavement. ‘Redemptive,’ ‘inspirational,’ and ‘uplifting’ are three words that Rowling surely did not have in mind while writing this “tragicomedy”; it makes one wonder what her reasons were for writing a book which is so dark, bleak, and hopeless. Throughout the novel, Parminder Jawanda thinks of the Sikh phrase: “The light of God shines from every soul.” But The Casual Vacancy seems to show just the opposite—Rowling’s book is a quarry for digging up the nasty, negative, and nefarious natures of human beings.

Rowling’s poetic prose, artful narration, and refined development of drama are all commendable facets of The Casual Vacancy; however, the wearisome characters, explicit depictions of immorality, lackluster storylines, convoluted plot, and unsatisfying conclusion are indicative of the book’s overall deficiency. When compared with Harry Potter, the book’s shortcomings are even more drastic. If The Casual Vacancy is indicative of her realistic fiction, perhaps Rowling should venture back to fantasy.