Everyone who knows me knows that I love Harry Potter. In fact, I routinely include J.K. Rowling’s seven books in the Harry Potter series as one of my three great loves in life, accompanied by Popeye’s and Gucci Mane. The world that Rowling created in the Harry Potter series is nearly unparalleled in fiction, and it was a defining feature of my childhood. You can certainly ask my parents about those midnight releases I insisted on attending at the local Barnes & Noble, where I got my lightening bolt painted on and milled around drinking butterbeer and waiting for the most exciting moment in my young life.
The world that Rowling has created with The Casual Vacancy is entirely different to that in Harry Potter, but not necessarily less fascinating. There is no fantasy in The Casual Vacancy. There are no wizards or wands, no dragons or magic, no flying cars or time-turners. Here, there is just the gripping reality that faces people who meet at various levels of class and background, aversions and interests, causes and lost causes.
The premise of the book is established pretty early on. A local councilman in a small English town has died, and his death has set of a chain of reactions amongst both his friends and his enemies. There is nothing fantastic about a middle-aged man dying, and there is nothing fantastic about the town of Pagford, in which it happens. None of the characters are particularly novel: we have an expansive business proprietor with grandiose ideas of self, the battered family behaving in the ways that battered people do, a grieving widow, an indecisive middle-aged man bumbling through bachelorhood, a young Indian girl whose vicious bullying causes her to turn inward on herself, the young boy doing most of the bullying (who is partially bored and partially acting out), a young girl well known for how vicious she is and less known for the long line of familial trauma that lead to that viciousness, and so on and so forth.
This novel features a significant cast of characters and explores how these characters’ small actions over time have large impacts on one another’s lives. I found it to be just as easy and smooth to read as the Harry Potter books, though grounded in a much different reality. And, even though this novel is set in the English countryside, I readily recognized many of the class stratifications and issues that both feed into and stem from those stratifications in the novel.
I also see some hint of Rowling’s interest in crime novels manifest here. The Casual Vacancy is the first non-Harry Potter book that Rowlings has published under her own name, but she has used a pseudonym to publish several crime novels. For the entire last stretch of The Casual Vacancy, the reader can feel that something bad is going to happen. The depth of the characters and the skill of the writing allows you to anticipate some things but be blindsided by others, even when they were unavoidable all along. That truly is the best type of writing, that leaves you somewhere that you didn’t know you be, but that you know is the only place you could have ended up.