Who Needs Magic, Anyway?
I admit it. I only read The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling because JK Rowling wrote it. When the synopsis of it was first announced, earlier this year, my first thought was, “Well…that sounds horribly boring.” My interest was not immediately piqued. Admittedly, I had hoped for more magic. I was worried that it was going to be horrible, that I would hate it, that my idol JKR would be forever tarnished in my eyes with a subpar adult-geared novel. Which is ridiculous, of course. Most of my favorite authors have more than one book, and I do not love them all, but that doesn’t diminish the value of the ones I do love, or the respect I have for those authors. So I sucked it up, stopped being such a baby, and borrowed the book from my mom right after it came out.
My faith was rewarded. The Casual Vacancy is based in the fictional small town of Pagford. One of the parish council members dies, leaving a casual vacancy that must be filled. He was central to a fight surrounding the town’s “ghetto” area, called the Fields, where most of the “down-and-outs” lived. He wanted to keep it part of the town, and others did not. The book focuses on the people vying for the position, how the vacancy affects everyone in the town in circular ways, and how the fight over the Fields affects everyone. It’s not a perfect book, by any means, but then, neither are any of the Harry Potter books. Some areas feel rushed, and then some feel stagnant and plodding, and it comes to a crashing halt at the end, with tragedy offset by the picture perfect resolution of other conflicts that simply seem way too easy.
But despite that, this is an interesting, character-driven study of small town English life and the effects of classism. The casual vacancy created by the death of Barry (who dies right at the beginning, but is present throughout in myriad ways) is merely a catalyst for all the drama, and then is unceremoniously pushed onto the furthest backburner possible. It crops up again and again, but rarely for its own sake (thank goodness). The characters and their abundance of issues are always the main focus.
And what a motley crew they are. The book is populated with a large cast of some of the most loathsome regular people you can think of. Most of them are completely vile, and even the ones that you think you might like end up tarnished in some way, either through action, thought, or the eyes of another character. Not all the characters are necessary and some perspectives could easily have been removed in favor of more narrative cohesion, but I think each character served an important purpose in illustrating the tapestry of the small town, the ways that people are interconnected even with those they revile, and the ways that small actions can have enormous ripple effects.
Overall, it’s a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking novel, and I am very interested to see what my idol will come out with next. Who needs magic, anyway? (Though she did excite fanboys and girls every, me included, when she said that she hasn’t written off the idea of heading back to the magical world of Harry Potter. No prequels though. )
(And, because it’s always a good time for this, here is JKR’s commencement address at Harvard. Gets me every time:
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