‘The Casual Vacancy’ proves powerful, heartbreaking

Lauren Puckett

Photo used under fair use doctrine
I know a book is powerful when I close that final page and all I feel is a distinct numbness. It’s as if I’ve been tossed back into the world and can’t quite recognize my surroundings. I feel moved and a little lost.
If any author has proved that she can evoke this sensation, it’s J.K Rowling. The bestselling author of the Harry Potter series has proved again and again that she can twist heartstrings until they bleed, while also spinning brilliant plots with characters that become your best friends. I cried when I finished the final Harry Potter book, not because the ending was sad, but because I wasn’t ready to leave Hogwarts, to be transported back to my own, un-magical, Muggle world.
Fortunately, Rowling is not finished writing. She’s picked up the pen and paper once again, and handed us her latest adult novel, titled simply “The Casual Vacancy.”
The premise, at first glance, seems relatively mundane. A young man on a small town council dies from a brain aneurysm, leaving a “casual vacancy” on the council, and the people of his town battle for the position. Boring, right?
Wrong. Something about Rowling’s intuition–her innate understanding of characters–allows her to turn the tiniest small town into a hub of culture. The characters come alive in each paragraph, as corruption reveals itself in the unlikeliest of forms. A high schooler from a respectable family begins cutting herself. The son of a headmaster dives into cigarettes and sex. A depressed social worker helps a heroin-addicted mother take control of her children’s lives.
A third person omniscient point of view enhances each of these characters, allowing Rowling to explore everyone’s day-to-day lives, from the strict Parminder Jawanda to the callous Krystal Weedon. Every paragraph is rich in detail and realism, hitting the reader almost too close to home.
Unfortunately, this is where Rowling’s problems pop out from under the text. The author is a positively brilliant storyteller, and yet the writing is so vivid, so heavy, that it begins to wear on the reader’s brain. And I don’t just mean run-on sentences or overuse of adjectives. I mean that the characters become so grotesquely familiar, so cruel and angry, that all the reader can register is depression. We lose the message behind the book, directing us towards political corruption and selfish vanity, and instead all we can think is, “Wow, this book makes me feel horrible.”
Perhaps Rowling’s looming tower of Potter made her overshoot her standards. Perhaps she’s tried too hard to tie us to a “real world,” and instead has lost the beauty and happiness that made the Potter books shine. Personally, I missed smiling while I read “The Casual Vacancy.”
However, the book is still a strong rendition of the darkness lurking in civil society. It reminds us of our own pride, of the less fortunate, and the reasons why power comes with responsibility.
“The Casual Vacancy” isn’t Potter, but it still has a magic of its own.
By Lauren Puckett