Having read each of the Harry Potter books on numerous occasions to the extent that I developed an eternal adoration for the series, it is something of a surprise that it took me over three years after the publication of The Casual Vacancy to buy J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel.
I began reading it in March, and as I opened the book to glance the first page I was filled with an inevitable sense of anticipation; intrigued to see what this one-of-a-kind storyteller had in store with a story set firmly in the muggle world, about a local election that takes place within what appears to be the peaceful, genteel parish village of Pagford, but turns out to be a place rife with dishonesty and social divisions.
J.K. Rowling’s writing style and syntax is evident from the start, but the language of the novel cannot be coarser than that of Harry Potter. It is language of the worst kind, as she takes on the subjects of marital infidelity, drug use, sex, pornography, child abuse and self-harm, to name just a few. I have to admit that seeing such regular usage of a diverse range of expletives with varying degrees of severity took some acclimatising to.
Some of it left me feeling uncomfortable, and the book does take in a number of tragic incidents as events spiral a little out of control towards the end as heartbreaking stories of deprivation and a volatile political landscape culminate in death and instability. All in all it is an excellent novel from an author whose ability will never go down in my estimation. It is certainly not perfect and not altogether polished, but when the benchmark has been set so high it is easy to pick holes here and there.
Despite its rather edgy plotline, The Casual Vacancy is a comedy in some places. There are certainly some passages that made me laugh out loud. It is also a paradise for anyone who loves similes and metaphors, an area where Rowling seems to have gone into overdrive. Sometimes she gets a little carried away, but a few of her comparisons are breathtakingly masterful, so much so that I paused to examine them.
At the beginning it is all about trying to get used to all of the characters and what their personal circumstances are. There are a huge array of different personalities in Pagford who Rowling covers on an almost rotational basis over the space of a week following the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother in the opening chapter. In fact, very few of these characters are likeable, but at the same time most of them make very interesting reading.
The themes explored are right at the heart of it, and sometimes overtakes the election in terms of coverage. All of the characters are eventually forced to take desperate measures in a bid to ease their own problems, while the novel’s content also required research on areas such as online hacking and religious practices.
One of the families portrayed are adherents of Sikhism, which had the potential to be divisive. For me there are some questionable elements, but generally it is handled very well and with a sense of maturity. As for online hacking, Rowling does not describe it in great detail and can be vague in places, but it emerges as a key plot point as the revelations exposed by The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother indirectly lead to the events that leave Pagford in virtual social ruin by the end.
There is plenty to analyse within The Casual Vacancy and I hope to do so in real detail. A local election is a great idea for a novel as it lends itself to all kinds of possibilities, but the social issues represent what lies firmly at the heart of the novel. Some work, and others don’t.