I finished The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s novel for adults that came out last year. Last week I gushed in the early stages that I couldn’t see why reviewers had panned it. Someone suggested to me that they were expecting Harry, but for grown-ups, and Harry was Not What They Got. I can see that. The Harry Potter books are fantasies, school stories set in a world of magic. Wherever Harry lives, it isn’t in our world — or at least the world visible to us Muggles. Pagford, on the other hand, the village setting for The Casual Vacancy, is very recognizable as a part of our world. It is populated with a variety of families with varying degrees of dysfunction. They are just like our families, or at least like families we know. There is no escape from reality in Pagford. If you thought Rowling was the Queen of Escape To Another World, The Casual Vacancy will disappoint. Maybe that was what was with all the negative reviews, the conclusion that Pagford is not Hogwarts. Well wake up and smell the coffee reviewer people. Not everyone who is a writer is content with cranking out the same old thing because that is what the Reading Public has enjoyed in the past. I think The Casual Vacancy needs to be assessed on its own strengths and merits for what it is, not denounced because it is not another Harry Potter book.
Let me try assessing The Casual Vacancy for what it is. CV is a novel set in an English village. The main conflict revolves around whether the village should continue to rent a building to a drug treatment clinic, and whether the village should urge the nearby city to annex a district council-run development called “The Fields.” The main advocate for the clinic and the people of the Fields remaining attached to Pagford is Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. The trick is that Mr. Fairbrother dies an early and unforeseen death in the golf club parking lot on about page 4 of the book. The rest of the book examines the long shadow Fairbrother’s life and death casts across the village. The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother makes four appearances, and drives the conflict onward. Essentially the conflict resolves when people learn to live without Fairbrother and his ghost.
Rowling tells a compelling tale. She does not sugar-coat the realities of teen-aged and adult life. Some may be shocked at the lack of sugar coating, but I didn’t find that Rowling gave unnecessary details for shock value. There are a lot of characters, but this is a village play, not a family drama, and there are no more key characters to keep track of than in many other novels of a similar size and length. The one thing I wondered about was Rowling’s use of the third person omniscient to tell the story. In the Potter books she used the third person limited voice, so that with some few exceptions in the beginning chapters of some books, we saw and heard everything from Harry’s point of view. This limited point of view is, I think, a strength of the Potter books. She might have done better with a more limited point of view in The Casual Vacancy, but I’m willing to chalk that up to trying something different. I’d read CV again, and give it 4/5 in my personal rating scheme. This means I recommend it with only a few reservations (it can be a bit raw, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as it isn’t plot driven).
Have you read Rowling for grown-ups? What did you think?