The burden of success for The Casual Vacancy is on the shoulders of her fans who will either accept that J.K. Rowling can do stuff outside the magical land of Harry Potter or not. She has nothing to prove to them, and she should not be worried that some her fans, especially younger ones, might find this turn into adult fiction a bit jarring.
Still, while The Causal Vacancy is a bit overlong, it’s still a very dark book, filled with people who do horrible things in pursuant of their goals. It’s like Rowling decided that she wanted to explore the lives of Dursely’s –those social climbing, snobbish, self-absorbed, small-minded characters found in the Harry Potter novels- and the town they lived in.
What we get is novel set in the fictional small English town of Pagford. The village, with its cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, seems idyllic but like an Elizabeth George novel, we clearly see early on that behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Unlike a typical murder mystery from George, what we get is tale about what happens when one of the parish councilors, Barry Fairbrother dies from a cerebral hemorrhage. While Pagford is left in shock -some mourn his loss- others see his empty seat on the parish council to their advantage. At stake is an old Church and drug treatment center that resides with in it. And while Barry was a supporter of it, his timely passing becomes the catalyst for a war between almost everyone within Pagford.
The book takes too long to go anywhere, and Rowling’s themes of loss, the responsibilities that come with being an adult and mortality are rife through the novel. But the book never fully gels and you feel at times, as the reader, you would not want to be near any of these people –they’re all pretty toxic. At times, it becomes all too much as Rowling piles one suitcase of unpleasantness on top of another- there is rape, child abuse, suicide, self-mutilation, and mental illness. There is no hook, no one character for the reader to latch onto, besides –maybe- troubled 16 year-old Krystal Weedon. She seems to be the only one trying to do what’s right, mostly for her little brother Robbie, but because she is as broken as the rest of the town, your sympathies are sometimes hard to come by when she does stuff that questions her true motives.
Still, I wonder, how much of what happens in this book can actually happen in small town in America and small villages across England? How many towns are on the cusp of rebellion, only needing some minor catalyst to turn good people into horrible monster?
I do hope that she leave Pagford behind -one visit was aplenty. As a follow-up novel to her Harry Potter series, it shows us Rowling is a capable author. Just leave the soap opera-ish storylines to Coronation Street.