If the Harry Potter series was magical, if it was fantastical, if it was charming, extraordinary or spellbinding, then The Casual Vacancy is its opposite. Rowling seems determined in her first adult novel to discount any form of charm whatsoever. There is a cringe-worthy banality that underlies political goings-on in the fictional village of Pagford, where a local councillor has died, leaving an empty seat on the parish board.
A rather grim vision of the underbelly of small-town British life, The Casual Vacancy can seem to 'carry on' a bit, to draw upon everyday trivialities, to examine them and to rub raw all sense of meaning until what we're left with is a string of depressing events weaved together by a complex web of social and political interactions. It all gets quite dizzying! But if you can steady yourself through the first 100 or so pages, what seems an awkward intrusion on the mundane does eventually lead you somewhere. It seems to be a sort of sadistic commentary on the 'reality' of life in the British middle class. But putting aside the skin-itching pettiness of the Pagfordians and Rowling's convoluted style, can we really be convinced that the British middle class is as devoid of charm, as dismal, as utterly miserable as this once-charismatic writer would have us believe? I, for one, am not entirely convinced.
The smells of body odour, stale sweat and cigarettes waft through all 502 pages, insistently eroding any storybook stigma that may have attached itself to Rowling's writing. It's as though, determined to make a point of her existence as a serious writer in the real, adult world, Rowling has overdone it. Stale sheets, crusty anuses and flabby guts make a few too many appearances for this story to feel 'real' at all. In one particularly telling passage, a contrast is drawn between Rowling's stark new reality and the childhood fantasies of her previous books as schoolgirl Gaia displays resentment at her mother not being at home to meet her 'like a storybook mother'. No magic wands are waved about to cure a junkie of her addiction, there's no Professor Dumbledore to step in and obstruct the raping of a young woman, and misunderstood teenagers are not swept away to an enchanted castle. No, there's nothing magical about life in Rowling's 'real' world.
In fact, The Casual Vacancy would have us believe that life, 'real' life, is an ugly, miserable affair interspersed with acts of forced bonhomie and fake camaraderie. The vagrant teenaged son of middle class, middle aged Tessa and Colin Wall is the Vacancy's poster boy for the revelation of the "real", bleak reality: 'The difficult thing, the glorious thing', he says, 'was to be who you really were, even if that person was cruel or dangerous, particularly if that person was cruel or dangerous. There was courage in not disguising the animal you happened to be.' But really, Rowling? Do we really believe that? Are our only choices wizards or wazzocks? Is there no middle ground?
What this novel lacks is affection: both between reader and characters, and amongst the characters. In the Harry Potter series it was the overstated quirks, the wholly unrealistic or 'fantastic' elements of the characters that made them memorable and lovable. Contrarily, The Casual Vacancy is peopled with shallow, understated characters whose personal histories are confined to brief asides in parentheses (a habit that serious writers should whole-heartedly avoid). You can almost hear Rowling bursting to describe Howard Mollison as a big, fat mean-headed muggle the likes of Vernon Dursley (and his wife could be an incarnation of professor Dolores Umbridge had she been born into the non-magical world), but there is this constant restraint, this desperation to maintain a seriousness that leaves the characters, as New York Times' Michiko Kakutani put it, 'so much less fully imagined than the ones in the Harry Potter epic'.
Rowling's new page in writing has certainly made a hard-hitting impression on Australian book-buyers. Selling more than 150,000 copies within the first week of release and currently sitting at fourth position on the Nielson BookScan list of bestsellers, it is clear that after her initial success in children's writing Rowling will never lack for an audience.
Agreed. I began reading the book with an open mind realising it would be nothing likr Harry Potter. I expected a book that would captivate me. This book did not. I read on, telling myself it would get better but when I came to the end I was completly disappointed