‘The Casual Vacancy’ in Review

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J.K. Rowling ventures into new literary territory with The Casual Vacancy, her first book for adults. While this genre is not as much of a natural fit for her as the fantasy Harry Potter series, it is still an engrossing tale worth reading.

The story takes place in the small English town of Pagford. When town Councilman Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, the fight over who will get his seat captures the attention of the whole town. The three candidates are a country lawyer trying to get out from under the shadow of his father, who is a successful restaurant owner, an Indian doctor vying for the respect of the other townspeople, and a corrupt businessman who gets in the race for the sole purpose of receiving kickbacks. Families of the candidates are also spotlighted. The main issue of the race is what to do with the Fields, the local housing project. The Weedons, a family of drug addicts and truant children, are held up as evidence that the Fields are not worth saving.

Rowling’s language in this book is a far cry from that of the Potter books. She uses a more authentic English dialect with a lot of profanity. She also deals with many mature issues, such as sex, drugs and corruption. Unlike the unspecified time period of the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s new novel takes place solidly in the present day, as the candidates use message boards and Facebook to get their points across. Her characterizations remain detailed and quite believable, giving all of the lead and supporting players distinctive personalities.

Muggle politics is a far cry from wizard adventures and Rowling does struggle to make all the bureaucratic maneuvering and controversy interesting over 500 pages.  Rowling’s treatment of the issues real-world teenagers face sometimes lacks intensity as well, perhaps because she is not entirely out of the Hogwarts state of mind.

Small quibbles aside The Casual Vacancy is an assured debut in a new genre for Rowling. Whatever she writes next, this reviewer will be one of the first in line for it!