I can still remember when I was first encouraged to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was staying at my cousins' place in country New South Wales over Christmas, and my aunt, in a somewhat unusual conversation between her and I, insisted that I read it. I wasn't immediately taken by the cover, and put off beginning it for a few days; by the time we left I was unstoppably immersed, begging to be loaned the second book – which my cousins had in hardcover, they had got on board the Hogwarts Express so early… and thus began the years of excitement and anticipation as each instalment was published, and eagerly snapped up by my brothers and I as soon as we could get to the bookshop.
J.K. Rowling has taken what could be seen as a somewhat topsy-turvy leap from the supernatural to the everyday in The Casual Vacancy, her recently published first book for adults. Topsy-turvy, because it may well be said that while it is one thing to ask 'Where to after Harry?' it is quite another to go from Potter to... er, Pagford.
The Casual Vacancy follows numerous local characters in the English village of Pagford as events unfold after the death of a local councillor. Parochial and proud of it, several eminent citizens consider the Council to be a hallowed chamber of reason and representation, in which the most important decisions affecting their community are made. As for the rest… as events transpire, it becomes apparent that the mixed feelings about the council – and the right candidate to fill the casual vacancy – reflect deeper, and potentially lethal, cracks in the tidy veneer of village life.
The treatment of the characters is a bit light-hearted for the difficult subject matter with which they grapple. Most of them are left unredeemed and – which for my part is worse – unenlightened. Several loose ends are left untied and sparks of narrative interest grow cold, unnoticed. It is overall a somewhat unsatisfying read, in many respects.
Of course it will sell – a book about a lost sheet of toilet paper would probably become a best-seller if J.K. Rowling had written it! Yet despite the bruises I've got from carrying a sharp-cornered hardback tome around in my bag for a week, I don't regret the time spent turning the 500-odd pages.
There is a certain charm in the microscopic analysis of English village life – a weary satire against a familiar country backdrop. J.K. Rowling can certainly create a world into which she invites her readers; less wand-waving here, but still the same completeness that allows the characters to fit into the picture she is drawing. Throughout the book I found the very human way in which she constructed the characters, building them from one perspective and then just as convincingly from another, to be fascinating. There is a real skill involved in creating a character that the reader understands in the way they (the character) understand themselves; but who can also be clearly perceived in the way that other characters perceive them. A subtle capturing of the dynamics and undertones of village life is an effective realisation of this complexity.
It's hard to know if she is deliberately trying to shatter the child-friendly Potter paradigm, and prove she isn't a one-(enormous)-hit-wonder; or if, as she said, The Casual Vacancy really is the book she wanted to write. In any case, it is worth a read, both for the curious and those in search of something engaging to while away an afternoon or several. It just isn't going to change your life – in a clear, but not altogether devastating, contrast to the way Harry Potter did, when we were first introduced on that summer day all those years ago…
Good review, I have read the book already and would agree with a lot of your analysis. I found it a bit slow to develop at the beginning and had to push myself a bit to keep going but I was glad I persisted as overall I enjoyed it in the end.