Author of Harry Potter continues to cast a spell on readers despite mundane setting

by Cassie Lowery, ’13

In her latest book, The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling once again shines in her mastery of storytelling and the depth and believability of her characters. This time however, the magic which filled the pages of the Harry Potter series that launched her to fame is replaced with the dirty secrets of the townspeople of Pagford. This small English town has a pristine veneer where everyone knows everything about each other, or so they think. Here, politics run rampant, and most everyone has something they’re trying to hide. This is no fantasy, and there are no fairy tale endings.

The book starts when councilman Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly, leaving the city council with what is defined as a “casual vacancy.” The citizens of Pagford are immediately in an uproar, and a vicious campaign for the empty seat soon follows, with plenty of whispers, secrets, lies and surprises to keep the reader interested.

Though politics surround the story, many other modern and dark social issues bubble to the surface, making its adult marketing no surprise. It may come as a shock to some to think of the author who created Harry Potter writing about drug abuse and rape, but nonetheless it is an exciting change to see Rowling branch out and test her pen in another genre. The witches and wizards are gone, and left in their places is a shockingly real depiction of town life. The setting may be different, but the skill and artistry Rowling’s readers have come to expect from her remains. Her ability to tell a story, describe a place more vividly than a photo album and tackle the many difficult themes and conflicts in the contemporary world through literature permeates her latest work in a way which will satisfy even the highest expectations.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the effortlessness with which Rowling switches from character to character even within the same scene, giving the reader access to multiple viewpoints throughout the book. To add to this achievement, the book is told from the perspective of nearly 20 characters who are fully developed with their own distinctive voices and personalities. Rowling enables her readers to crawl into the minds of everyone present in a given moment, allowing for a unique experience wherein the reader becomes privileged to all sides of the story. Yet, while they all have their own separate concerns, secrets and worries, each of the individual plot lines eventually come together seamlessly.

If the novel has a flaw, it would be its slow and seemingly arduous start, as this is certainly not a book in which the action begins on the first page. Rather, this is a novel which builds slowly as Rowling develops her numerous characters. The story’s pace eventually picks up as chaos ensues when the world comes crashing down around her characters who have tried so hard to hide themselves from the truth. At this point, the book takes off and doesn’t look back while carrying its readers through an emotional ride full of twists and turns.

Deeply poignant, comedic, thought-provoking and ironic, The Casual Vacancy has the ability to make readers laugh, cry and reflect. The ending is almost Hemingway-esque in its blunt and powerfully-moving brevity. The haunting and ugly truth of which Rowling writes is sure to stick with readers long after the final page is turned.

Photo illustration by Cassie Lowery