As soon as I heard the rumors about J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel for adults, I knew I had to read it. I’m a diehard HP fan, but I was fairly sure I could come to her work with a fresh non-magical eye and appreciate it separately from her existing legacy.
The Casual Vacancy is a very British novel, not just in language or conventions, but in its focus on exposing the venality of the middle class. If you remember the Dursleys, so focused on external appearances, so self-absorbed and incapable of kindness, then you have an idea of Rowling’s views on a certain kind of British citizen, the kind that populate the small provincial town of Pagsford. The “casual vacancy” of the title appears when the one goodhearted adult in town dies and leaves an open spot on the parish council, but I think the title could also be a more coded reference to the casual attitude most of the adults in town take towards morality, or the vacancy of modern life. The children in the book are decidedly not all right, wrestling with grown-up issues beyond their powers to survive or transcend, and none of the adults seem able to look beyond their own noses and take responsibility, resulting some tragic twists and turns towards the end of the book and an overall sense of bleakness in the book as a whole.
The experience of reading the book was much more akin to reading The Corrections than I expected, which I appreciate as a well-written book, but is certainly not a book I loved. It’s difficult to spend an entire book with characters you don’t particularly like, but in both books, what made it difficult to connect with the characters was also the sense that the author didn’t particularly like or empathize with the characters either. Maybe this betrays my own bias as a reader more than anything else, but even if I’m reading a narrative full of flawed characters, I don’t want to feel repelled or repulsed by their flaws, no matter how large or small.
I’m glad I read the book, but I don’t think I need to see the characters come to life, nor is Pagsford a world I want to return to any time soon. But I will be one of the first in line when/if she writes another novel, just like I gave Franzen a second chance and was pleasantly surprised by enjoying Freedom as much as I did.