The Casual Vacancy Review

By: Shoshana Bachrach  |  December 31, 2012

I didn’t wait in line for hours to buy the book. I didn’t preorder it months in advance. I wasn’t even determined to be the first to read the entire thing as I was with J.K. Rowling’s other novels. The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first novel outside of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, was a disappointment to Harry Potter readers but was successful in gaining Rowling a new audience.

Personally, I was dying to read her new book, being a huge fan of the Potter universe; but mostly I was curious to see if the famed JK Rowling was a one-trick pony. She wouldn’t be the only author to fall into the trap of her own success, unable to outdo her first effort. So, I reserved the large-print copy from the library—a great trick to get new releases quickly—and settled down with a critical eye, with Hogwarts looming in the back of my mind. Despite the less-than-enthusiastic reviews of many critics, I found myself wishing that I had preordered it, or at least waited on line for it. In The Casual Vacancy, Rowling has cemented her status as a novelist, proving that she can tackle darker and dirtier subject matter with the same honesty and intricacy she expressed in the Harry Potter series.

The Casual Vacancy begins with the death of Pagford town council member Barry Fairbrother, creating what is called a casual vacancy, or an empty seat on the council. His death sets off a flurry of action in the little town. Fairbrother, it is revealed as the novel swiftly unfolds, was the lynchpin in a town conflict regarding the housing projects and drug rehabilitation center beside the Stepford-like town. Naturally, Fairbrother’s allies must find a replacement that supports their cause as well.

As in her previous books, Rowling’s characters bring her tale to life. The people of Pagford are so conflicted and so honest, that you can’t help but sympathize, even if you feel like you’ve seen some of them before. For example, Howard Mollison, as others have noted, could be Uncle Vernon’s dad, “with the same disgust for anyone at all out of the ordinary or “other” and tendency towards obesity, presumably a representation of their greedy and miserly characteristics.” Some of my other favorites were Tessa Wall, the weary and secretly critical wife of the local school’s headmaster, being stretched thin between her feuding husband and son. No character is innocent and everyone in Pagford seems to have a secret and a dark side. With characters like these, Rowling’s storytelling skill is magnificent, with stories intertwining as characters dig themselves into–or out of–deeper holes.

I wonder if it was unfair to read The Casual Vacancy while so obviously comparing it to Harry Potter in my mind, to the point that on more than one occasion I actually wondered why characters weren’t just pulling out their wands out already. But knowing Harry’s world made me appreciate Rowling’s tale all the more. Rowling’s celebrity propelled the commercial success of The Casual Vacancy, but I believe the book could be successful without the celebrity face behind it. If she writes a sequel, I’ll be standing in line for it.