The Casual Vacancy

This is a book about the Dursleys. And then some.

I think it must have been quite a shock for some young readers, grown-up and fresh out of Harry Potter, to pick up this book with that inevitable expectation that it would somehow hew to the Rowling tradition. This book is the antithesis of Harry Potter; a book featuring small-minded, insecure, mercurial characters, a book so bleak in its outlook it almost verges on the misanthropic.

Many of the reviews I read, despite disavowing comparisons to her children’s books, called out Rowling for writing something so mordant and scathing. They were looking for something that they expected of a writer of beloved children’s fantasy. Instead, they found themselves shocked by the fact that the same author who had come up with Harry Potter could, in the same vein, produce a work of such pessimism regarding human nature.

Something that comes out of Rowling’s writing is a preoccupation with themes of class and social status. It’s a recurrent motif in all her work, including Harry Potter, but it comes out strongly in The Casual Vacancy , which is at its heart a meditation on class and racial difference and the invidious effects that such difference exerts on people. Rowling’s prognosis here, is that there is little hope to be had. Her characters are beautifully crafted depictions of the ugliness towards which human nature can descend. They are at turns neurotic, jealous, small-minded, violent, grasping, truculent, snobbish, racist, sociopathic, hypocritical, power-hungry. The book reads like an encyclopedia of small-town dysfunction. Sordid affairs, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, drug abuse, rape, bullying – the litany of these is endless. No character, save a precious few, is left untarred by her writer’s brush. But what really disturbs is the finesse by which she explores their interior worlds, to such a degree that the reader come away feeling vaguely soiled by the experience.

Is this a kind of black comedy of errors? Perhaps. There is a strand of dark amusement that runs through the narrative. Rowling is having fun at the expense of her characters. Their ruinous inadequacies do them in. We sometimes are even invited to indulge in a little schadenfreude at their expense. But the general tone is almost angry. The savage acuity with which Rowling marries their foibles with their fates is almost personal in its metallic aftertaste.

Rowling tries to end things off, after the gut-wrenching climax, with a somewhat brighter note, as if the tragedies that abound catalyze a round of rejuvenation. But it comes off as too little, too late. After a journey through that emotional butchery, the reader is left wondering how the characters can possibly be redeemed.

Despite the unrelenting pessimism, Rowling’s writerly gifts shine. She has a knack for tight plotting and manages her large cast of characters with aplomb. Her writing is vibrant and expressive, and not as full of adverbs as her Harry Potter books, but instead infused with vivid metaphors, always with a tone of sardonic mockery at the moral failures of her characters.

While I finished this book feeling vaguely dirty and somewhat depressed, it was the kind of cathartic depression gained from having read what I think is a well-crafted work, no matter how psyche-bruising it was. Consider it, perhaps, Rowling’s phoenix-like, cauterizing rebirth as a writer, searing away the expectations that saddled her after Harry Potter. This book may well have been the brand, heated by the hot fires of misanthropy, used to seal the heart-wound that was the Harry Potter-shaped void in the world.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 stolen computers

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