In interviews prior to the release of her new novel “The Casual Vacancy,” J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series, acknowledged that she had contemplated publishing the highly anticipated debut for adult readers under a pen name. Ultimately, using a pseudonym would have stifled awareness of the book and most likely robbed countless “Harry Potter” fans who would purchase it because of her name from another spellbinding literary experience.
My overarching reaction to “The Casual Vacancy” is thankfulness. After seven transcendent “Harry Potter” novels, eight accompanying movies, garnering her a net worth greater than the Queen of England, the last thing Rowling could’ve been expected to do was churn out a more than 500-page novel on top of all that.
Much like “Harry Potter,” the story pulls you in fast, brimming with many of the same themes Harry, Ron and Hermione confronted on a daily basis – the ambiguity of right and wrong, clueless adults and gossip mongering.
However, “The Casual Vacancy” is not merely a dark comedy, as it’s been billed, but a seriously black glimpse into the disintegrating core of the small town of Pagford, following the death of parish council member Barry Fairbrother. The death of one of Pagford’s few good men leaves the town vulnerable to the malicious policymakers jousting for his vacant position.
Rowling’s prose is less “Nitwit,” “Blubber,” “Oddment,” “Tweak” and more “F—,” “S—,” “C—,” “B—-” delivered with surprising nonchalance. Adolescent fornication and heroin addiction replace Quidditch matches and Hogsmeade visits.
Toward the middle, the novel drags on slower than a double potions class. This rings particularly true in one chapter, which expounds upon the history of Pagford’s property lines in excruciating detail.
In this sense, Rowling is a victim of her own success. She’s especially clever at describing the intricacies of the world in which her characters operate, which in large part, is what made the “Harry Potter” series so enthralling. Alas, the trivialities of the Muggle-verse aren’t quite as interesting.
Eventually, “The Casual Vacancy” regains its footing. Reading the final 100 pages might be the most captivated I’ve been in a novel since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the final installment of the “Harry Potter” series, hit shelves five years ago.
The best part, though, was discussing the twists and turns of the plot with friends. Rowling’s work sparks a sense of community among her fans that can make reading the most rewarding experience in the world. More than anything, “The Casual Vacancy” reminded me why I spent so many days of my youth with her books.