The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
Rowling’s new book for adults has had some bad reviews, but I loved it. Other reviewers compared it unfavorably to the Harry Potter series, which I don’t think is quite fair. Cross-genre comparisons are always tricky. It’s not fair to expect a realistic novel for adults to be as “magical” as a fantasy series for children and/or young adults. The expectations are completely different. Instead of creating a whimsical, fascinating new world, Rowling chose to look long and hard at real life in all its mundane cruelties. If you open a book about the pettiness and oppressiveness of small-town life expecting the childlike wonder of Harry first encountering Hogwarts, of course you’re going to be disappointed.
The novel I’ve read recently that I think this one is most like is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Both books share a small-town England setting, begin with a death, and are fueled by the gossip a small town breeds. Rowling really, really hates gossip. The descriptions of the characters who were most eager to hear and spread it were vicious:
Together they rattled through the conventional aspects of the tragedy: the widow (“she’ll be lost, she lived for Barry”); the children (four teenagers; what a burden without a father”); the relative youth of the dead man (“he wasn’t much older than Miles, was he?”); and then, at last, they reached the point of departure, beside which all else was aimless meandering.
“What’ll happen?” Maureen asked Howard greedily.
The novel’s greatest weakness was a tendency toward stereotypes in characterization. Though in most cases an attempt was made to humanize characters or show why they are the way they are, in the case of the most stereotyped characters these inner windows didn’t reveal anything surprising. Terry the drug addict is defined by her addiction, and though she has a pitiful story of abuse and abandonment, it doesn’t really complicate her very much. There’s also a South Asian “tiger mom,” berating her daughter for middling grades and an over-the-top abusive father and husband, whose rants become almost comical. These examples may just prove that stereotypes are sometimes true. And maybe it’s hard to avoid at least a few of them when dealing with a cast of characters so large and varied.
Rowling’s best characters were probably her teens. Krystal Wheedon, daughter of a junkie, stood out as the most compelling character by far. She’s audacious and sassy, a leader when given the chance, but also a victim of horrible circumstances. She’s always trying her best to overcome or escape those circumstances, and to save her toddling brother Robbie, and though she doesn’t come up with the best plan, it doesn’t make her attempts any less admirable. Andrew “Half” Price plots to undermine his abusive father, between staring longingly at his crush, the new girl. Fats Wall, class clown and asshole, has a disgusting personal philosophy about “authenticity,” by which he means “doing whatever the hell you feel like without regard for others.” I can totally understand how a kid that age might come up with such a belief system, and attempt to use it to order his life, but it’s only fitting that it should blow up in his face tragically.
I amused myself picturing Harry Potter characters (or at least their actors) in place of some of the characters. Howard Mollison, grossly obese deli owner and city councilor, looked just like Vernon Dursley to me. Tessa Wall, high school counselor, was described with a horrible wardrobe, so I pictured her in Professor Trelawney’s outfits. Fiona Shaw AKA Petunia Dursley got a comic part as Samantha Mollison, a desperate housewife with a sad obsession with a boy band. I cast Emma Watson as the gorgeous high-schooler Gaia, and Rupert Grint as Andrew, who has a hopeless crush on her.
I loved Rowling’s sentences, her comparisons and descriptions. On that level, the book was pure pleasure, more even than I’d thought to expect from HP.
She thought of sex with Miles. It had last happened three weeks previously. His performance was as predictable as a Masonic handshake. One of his favorite sayings was “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
She has a knack with dialect, slang, and casual dialog that didn’t often come out in Harry Potter:
“Duz yer mum know yer out, Fats?” asked Nikki.
“Yeah, she brought me,” said Fats calmly, into the greedy silence. “She’s waiting outside in the car; she says I can have a quick shag before we go home for tea.”
They all burst out laughing except Krystal, who squealed, “Fuck off, you cheeky bastard!” but looked gratified.
One of Rowling’s greatest strengths as the Harry Potter series went on was that she was not afraid to kill off beloved characters when the story called for such brutality. That courage was in evidence here as well. I had to reread a passage a couple times before I believed the character was really dead. The death was fitting and tragic, in the real sense of the word, and gave the ending a weight and importance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. I heard that Rowling will be writing another children’s book next. I look forward to that, of course, but I also can’t wait to see her next book for adults.