You won’t find any witches and wizards in the tiny town of Pagford, the setting for J.K. Rowling’s only novel since leaving behind her “Harry Potter” legacy. Rowling makes the brave leap from children’s literature to her first adult novel with “The Casual Vacancy,” a book full of all the sex and drugs the Potter characters never encountered. The scandalous subject matter acts as a fitting backdrop for Rowling’s social critique of small-town facades, helped by the delightfully dreadful characters in this tragic yet darkly funny novel.
Pagford is sent reeling after the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the town’s Parish Council. Much of the town’s political turmoil surrounds a dodgy and downtrodden estate at the edge of Pagford called the Fields, which some of the townspeople wish to see cut off from their beloved, idyllic English haven for good. Barry was one council member in favor of keeping the Fields within Pagford lines. In light of his death, his political opponents and allies go head-to-head in an election to fill Barry’s vacant seat and settle the battle of the Fields once and for all.
The war that erupts in Pagford isn’t strictly political. The novel also encompasses the rage many of the town’s teenagers feel toward their status-obsessed and often inadequate parents — rage that spurs them to reveal their parents’ most startling secrets on the Parish Council’s online message board. A nod to her success with Potter, Rowling’s teenaged characters are her strongest and most developed, namely pimply Andrew, instinctual Fats and browbeaten Sukhvinder. But it is her adult characters who provide the most comedy. Borderline alcoholic Sam Mollison, for example, is the fiery wife of one of the council seat candidates, and she finds her escape in inappropriate fantasies about members of her daughter’s favorite American boy band.
Rowling’s choice of setting is complementary to her narrative style; a small town is naturally going to result in the entanglement of a handful of lives. Rowling makes use of this by narrating in the third person, bouncing around among the teenagers’ and their parents’ lives as they cross paths at work, school and obligatory social events laced with hidden agendas. However, the constant switching among characters can be disorienting at times, as can Rowling’s frequent use of flashbacks set off by parentheses. Some of these flashbacks span pages, and the closing parenthesis can come as a shock, the reader having forgotten that what they were reading was a flashback at all.
Indeed, perhaps Rowling’s editor gave her a little too much liberty, considering her past success. Many of her sentences seem sloppily constructed. Occasionally she gets a bit heavy on the semicolons as well, often misusing them entirely. Luckily, her vibrant characters and the fast-paced plot make up for these small technical indiscretions.
Though perhaps not a book everyone will reread over and over until tattered — as one might with the beloved “Harry Potter” series — “The Casual Vacancy” is by no means a failure. Though she focuses on drastically different subject matter, Rowling’s prose style and complex young characters will feel like familiar territory for older Potter fans, who will happily burrow inside the book’s pages. Even adults without Potter experience will find “The Casual Vacancy” to be an enjoyable read, thought provoking and witty in all the right places.