For a story rooted in a tiny bubble of a town, “The Casual Vacancy” covers an astonishing amount of territory. J.K. Rowling’s new novel grapples with everything from socioeconomic clashes to petty small-town politics, with ample doses of teenage angst and family woes. The story ventures into the minds of countless characters, exposing trenches of questionable motives, failed communication, and unrequited longing.
But if you want to know about all that, you’ll read the 500 pages yourself. I’m here to answer the real question people have, whether they plan on opening the book or not: how does “The Casual Vacancy” compare to the Harry Potter series?
Here’s the short answer—it doesn’t. And I mean that in the best way possible.
In some ways, “The Casual Vacancy” is the antithesis of “Harry Potter.” Harry’s story unfolds in a world that is entirely Rowling’s creation, a society built on magical foundations. “The Casual Vacancy” is rooted in a world that is resolutely normal and all too familiar. The book’s greatest appeal is that it delves so deeply into this mundane Muggle society, uncovering layers of conflict in a story that is rather unremarkable on the surface.
The plot kicks off with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a resident of the fictional town of Pagford in southwestern England. His death leaves an empty seat on the Pagford Parish Council, the political powerhouse of the town. The general grief over Barry’s passing gets buried in a bigger question: who will fill the vacancy?
In the battle that ensues over the Council seat, the main source of contention is The Fields, an area of public housing projects that also houses a drug rehabilitation clinic. The Fields are technically a part of Pagford, but some members of the Pagford Council are determined to give up responsibility for the area, feeling that its persistent poverty and negative reputation should be totally severed from the idyllic Pagford community.
Barry Fairbrother was in favor of keeping The Fields a part of Pagford, rather than handing it over to the neighboring city of Yarvil. But in his absence, the head honchos of the Pagford Council are determined to override the pro-Fields contingent. The decision depends on who gets elected to replace Barry.
The novel’s central conflict isn’t especially gripping. It’s the story’s implications—the ever-present problem of class warfare, the question of who should take responsibility for whom—that make “The Casual Vacancy” a culturally relevant and compelling read.
Caught up in this struggle is Krystal Weedon, a teenage Fields resident whose foul mouth and reputation for indiscretion disgust many Pagford residents. While she seems like just a waste of space at first, we soon find out how complex and sad her story is. She essentially has to raise her little brother while her single mother continually fails to quit her heroin habit. If the anti-Fields people had their way, the local methadone clinic would close down, making her situation worse than ever.
Krystal’s story is the most tragic one in the book. Her problems pose a stark contrast to the petty preoccupations of Pagford’s more affluent residents. The members of the Mollison family, who lead the anti-Fields regiment, are unsurprisingly on the opposite end of this spectrum from Krystal. By constantly shifting perspectives, advancing the story through the eyes and minds of all of her characters equally, Rowling makes this contrast all the more apparent.
It would take way too long to go through this novel’s entire cast of characters. So many people factor into the novel’s plot that their interconnecting storylines are at times hard to keep up with. Rowling makes an admirable effort to get inside each of her characters’ minds, exposing attitudes and flaws that go beyond appearances. Sometimes she goes overboard or misses the mark, but the characters are generally believable.
The one thing they all have in common is that they are all somehow unsatisfied with their own lives, whether they are unhappy in their romantic engagements, lusting after people they can’t have, or struggling with self-consciousness. Unfortunately, this dissatisfaction is the unifying factor that makes them so relatable. There are only a few truly likable characters, but that’s to be expected when you’re taking such extensive trips inside each of these people’s heads.
Rowling is really in her element when she delves into the lives of Pagford’s younger residents. The kids play an indirect but crucial role in the outcome of the town’s elections. But they also are involved in their own sub-plots—stories of insecurity, frustration, and sexual curiosity that are convincing without being contrived. Their narratives often provide a refreshing break from the adults’ melodramatic woes.
That being said, this book is decidedly not for children. Its content is raw and often sexually explicit, and it deals with cases of self-harm, child abuse, drug addiction, and rape. Parents of young Harry Potter fanatics should take heed.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Rowling said that the idea to write about a local election came to her on an airplane trip, in a “rush of adrenaline.” It’s a bit difficult to understand how small-town politics could inspire such excitement, and I found it hard at times to sustain attention on an issue that was fundamentally not that interesting. But Rowling’s psychological exploration of her characters makes up for the places in which the story itself is lacking.
Though this novel definitely has its funny moments, it is by no means an uplifting book. If you’re prepared for a dose of disillusionment, “The Casual Vacancy” is worth a read.