When JK Rowling announced her forthcoming novel, The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter fans everywhere rejoiced. Rowling warned, though, that it would be very different from the Potter series. Regardless of her warning, fans were frothing at the mouth with excitement. When The Casual Vacancy was released, however, it received lukewarm reviews at best. So, what’s the deal? Is The Casual Vacancy really just a so-so novel, or are Potter fans just biased against the lack of quidditch?
Rowling’s new novel, for starters, takes place in our universe. There is no wand-waving or potion-brewing. There is simply the small town of Pagford, a seemingly idyllic parish with an ancient abbey overlooking the sleepy square. It begins with the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother—a devastating blow that will cast this town into turmoil and start a war. Rich vs. poor, young vs. old, father vs. son.
The war begins and ends with the Fields, a neighborhood overrun by drug addicts and welfare recipients, an eyesore and a black mark on an otherwise beautiful town. The council must decide whether the Fields, including the methadone clinic Bellchapel, will remain a part of Pagford or be released to Yarvil, the local city. With the death of Fairbrother, a staunchly pro-Fields council member, a fight ensues between the pro-Fielders and anti-Fielders to fill his seat.
Filling his seat, however, is not as simple as electing one of the candidates. Everything, we are reminded, has consequences. The result of neglect, abuse, and resentment, the children of those standing for election post their parents’ horrible secrets and dastardly plans on the Council’s message board for all to see. The election becomes fraught with accusations both true and false. It is no longer a matter of who would be best to fill the seat, but who best can cover up his past.
The novel is not merely the tale of a local election. It is one of broken families and the shocking reality of social issues such as drug abuse and rape. It speaks to the difficulties of growing up—of the fact that some people never do. It is a heart-wrenching tale—one brutally honest about the fact that, sometimes, there are no happy endings, even for the characters who seem to come out on top.
And how do we know that victory is not always victory in Pagford? Where in Harry Potter, we saw things only from Harry’s point of view, The Casual Vacancy allows us to occupy the headspace of multiple characters. Everyone from Howard Mollison, the picture of Old Pagford, to Krystal Weedon, the sixteen-year-old Fields resident whose life has been nothing short of tragic gives us a little insight into why things are the way they are in Pagford.
The beautiful thing about these characters is how three-dimensional they are. There is no outright hero, and there is no one villain. On one page, your heart may be aching for someone, but on the next you loathe him deeply. They become real—they exist beyond the page.
So, yes, the metaphorical juice is worth the squeeze. Though there is no epic final battle scene, and there is no Dumbledore to gently and silently guide the characters, there is a deeply emotional story. When you read The Casual Vacancy, you will question your own beliefs. And though, by the end, you may ask yourself, “Why?” you will love these characters as your friends and wonder, longer after the book is done, what will become of these people.