“The Casual Vacancy” has been called J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, but anyone my age knows that Harry Potter is not just for childhood, but for a lifetime. As I started this novel of the intricacies of ostensibly idyllic rural English life, the fact that it was written by one of my favorite authors, so firmly identified with a tale of mythic proportions, was forefront in my mind. As I become more immersed in this detailed world of flawed Muggles, however, I repeatedly forgot and was subsequently startled to remember who had penned it.
Rowling doesn’t pull any punches, although readers who have mourned Potter characters know that isn’t anything new. The first third of the novel was compelling but a bit slow to get going. The middle was engrossing and the last third couldn’t be put down.
Like other subtle novels, the storyline is hard to synopsize. For example, summarizing “To Kill a Mockingbird” in a sentence (a long drawn-out trial over a summer in the South while siblings bother the next door neighbor) doesn’t capture its emotional depth. “The Casual Vacancy” is embroiled in the bucolic world of local politics, and unlike the Potter novels that highlighted the relatable human element within the fantastic, this slice-of-life novel finds profundity in the mundane. Expansive moral questions are explored in the microcosm of this insular community.
Also like in the Harry Potter saga there is a wide network of different characters that are not hard to remember and distinguish. Perspective is just as critical in this novel as in Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” but instead of differing perspectives on a situation, it provides differing perspectives on people, and the whole left in the community by a sudden death, from the viewpoint of varying characters.
Like Roald Dahl or C.S. Lewis, when writing children’s literature Rowling adopted a sly and knowing tone that winked at some of the conventions of storytelling and was all her own. In “The Casual Vacancy” Rowling adopted a different, more adult voice to go with the more adult content. Her prose is still clever and humorous, but more straightforward.
This novel has been plagued by pre-conceived notions. Rowling decided to publish her understated introspective adult novel under the same pseudo-penname as the record-breakingly best-selling Potter series. Questions of character, the choices that define us and what people decide to stand up for are just as relevant, however, to the young adults who grew up with Harry as the children who read them under their covers with a flashlight.