A New Kind of Magic
By Jessica Larkin-Wells
Hopkins students who have grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione may approach JK Rowling’s new un-fantastical book a little warily. Released last September, The Casual Vacancy achieved immediate bestseller status across the world, and it earned as much of its own acclaim as the name “JK Rowling” won for it. This new novel, directed at an adult audience, was the first Rowling published that was unaffiliated with the Harry Potter series.
Reading the book can be a strange experience for readers familiar with the Harry Potter books because the subject matter and audience are vastly different. For those of you tempted to read this book because you loved Harry Potter, turn back. The novel really is adult fiction, dealing bluntly with suicide, rape, child abuse, and drug addiction. What remains of the Rowling we know is embedded in the very style of her writing: much of her descriptive skill shines through in The Casual Vacancy, along with her ability and drive to describe entire communities of people.
This is both the greatest aspect and most obvious shortcoming to The Casual Vacancy: it is a character-driven novel. The novel is emphatically not propelled by a plot; in fact, the plot itself is rather dull. (In fairness, there are few interesting books about small-town elections.) Almost the entire storyline is given on the book jacket: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock…. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has seen yet.” Readers, I’ll clarify: there is no literal war. And because Rowling mostly disregards the plot, she gives herself the space to focus entirely on her characters.
Early on, Rowling throws so many characters at us that it is difficult to keep them apart. (When my mom read the book, she took notes.) There is the frumpy high school councilor Tessa Wall and her paranoid husband “Cubby;” Gavin Hughes, falling in love with his best friend’s widow; Andrew and Fats, recalcitrant teens; Maureen, the old deli lady in stilettos, and her pompous and rotund business partner Howard; his fussy wife Shirley; Samantha, infatuated by the guitarist in her daughter’s favorite British band; agonizingly self-conscious Sukhvinder, and Gaia, pretty and cosmopolitan, who discovers her; and Krystal, who skips school and smokes cigarettes and is the closest thing we find to a heroine. There are more, and they all share center stage. Needless to say, it takes a long time to introduce all of the characters and establish their relationships with one another. The book jacket is surprisingly accurate: “A big novel about a small town.”
For the first one hundred or so pages, the character focus is disorienting. As readers, we are accustomed to finding a hero early in the book to root for, but that’s impossible in The Casual Vacancy. Every dozen or fewer pages, the scene changes and we are thrown into a new character’s life. Although some characters are more central in the way that they have connections to many other characters, they are not protagonists in the normal sense of the word. There is no hero in part because Rowling doesn’t write about any one character alone for long enough, but also because they aren’t all likeable. All of Rowling’s characters are pitiable for one reason or another. Whether they are self-absorbed, materialistic, or gossipy, many of the characters have a petty and disappointingly mundane side. In Shirley Mollison’s eyes, Ruth “had much less conversational finesse… finding it difficult to disguise her greed for Pagford gossip, of which she was deprived.” Simon “had been a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people, making his house a fortress against the world where his will was law, and where his mood constituted the family’s daily weather.”However, Rowling acknowledges these human flaws and paints them with a little humor and satire. We see the flaws and laugh, so Rowling manages to keep her characters sympathetic. She is unafraid of exposing the dishonest, selfish, and cruel sides to her characters, and still leaves us with the awareness of their deeper selves; this makes them real. As readers, we can’t distance ourselves from them because, deeply, we have similar feelings.
So although there isn’t any wand-waving, Rowling manages to conjure some magic after all. She makes us pity, and love, and care. And although the last scene is a funeral, we manage to leave the novel feeling hopeful.