The problem with The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s new novel for adults, isn’t that it’s full of sex, violence, and profanity. (According to a Kindle search, there are 163 uses of the F word as a verb, gerund, or adjective.) The problem is that in this sea of despicable characters, there is simply no one to root for.
Before I read the novel, I skimmed through a number of angry reviews on Amazon, reviews by readers who feel betrayed by Rowling’s determination to show she’s not just a children’s author. Right now The Casual Vacancy is not even averaging a three-star rating on the site, a lousy showing for a beloved author. Readers are downright livid.
“They’re just reacting to the sex, violence, and profanity,” I thought. “They’ve put Rowling in a box and can’t stand it that she’s demonstrating her range and versatility. The book can’t possibly be this bleak.”
So I started the novel with cautious optimism, and about a third of the way through I wanted to slit my wrists.
It’s not that it’s poorly written. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s a technical masterpiece. Up until the ending, which is maudlin and a tad predictable, the novel is a rapier-sharp observation of the very worst of humanity.
Some aspects of it are recognizable as vintage Rowling—she still loves adverbs and ellipses and hates fat people, for example—but the bulk of the story feels like it was written by an embittered stranger.
In the best Jane Austen style, the narrative conflict takes place in a tiny hamlet among people who are puffed up in their own self-importance. Like Austen, Rowling demonstrates how those people can come to believe that their village and the deep striations of its class system are the most imperative elements of the universe. As the playing field on which they jockey for position gets smaller, their fight becomes all the more venomous.
The catalyst for the escalation of their local conflict is the death, at the novel’s beginning, of Barry Fairbrother, whose Dickensian last name suggests that he is the only adult in the town without secrets to hide, who is a brother to all parties, who gives everyone a fair shake. Fairbrother’s sudden demise leaves a vacant seat on the town council at precisely the time when a key vote is about to occur regarding the town’s future.
Unlike Austen, there is no protagonist to be found anywhere, only an unrelenting series of victims and victimizers.
I did not hate this novel. I hated its people, which is not the same thing. It’s not that Rowling draws characters who have realistic flaws amidst their dormant redeeming qualities. It’s that she draws characters who have virtually no redeeming qualities, characters of such boundless selfishness that they don’t resemble anyone I actually know. I know plenty of flawed individuals, but no one quite as horrid as these people, and the premise that an entire village is filled with them is as much a dark fantasy as anything Rowling devised for Harry Potter.
The town of Pagford provides a glimpse of what the world would be like if Voldemort had won. It feels like an extended visit to Azkaban, where the reader feels sucked of all happiness and becomes convinced she will never be able to feel joy again.
The only cure is large quantities of chocolate.