When J.K. Rowling announced she was writing a book for adults, it seemed the perfect decision. Her loyal readers had grown up with Harry Potter and, now in their early 20s, would readily read the next J.K. Rowling book. The perfect readership for her latest adult novel.
The Casual Vacancy has been described as a ‘big novel about a small town’. The town of Pagford is left in shock after Barry Fairbrother, a much liked and valuable member of the Parish Council and local community dies suddenly in his early forties, leaving behind a wife and four children. His death sets in motion a jostle for power as members of the local community put their names forward for the seat on Parish Council, vacated by Barry Fairbrother.
Beneath an idyllic small town Rowling reveals a seething underbelly of crime, drugs and dysfunctional lives. The gap between the middle class and the working class widens as the pretty country town defies the needs of others, keen to retain their white, seemingly functional, stayed community.
The development of Rowling’s characters is, as we would expect, brilliant. The many characters are brought to life, the much-maligned doctor from Pakistan, the couple who have lived in Pagford their entire lives, the teenagers whose lives are wracked with boredom and disappointment. By the end of the book the reader feels they know the community of Pagford. Rowling’s skill is in her ability to draw so many in depth characters in the one book.
There are three generations in the small town of Pagford, but it is the teenagers, the grandchildren, that come to life, their dark lives played out in the shadow of a small shallow town, with parents desperately trying to assert themselves in their feeble attempt to gain power in the local community. Rowling places the teenagers as the watchers, the lost souls of Pagford, watching their parents stumble through their ridiculously small lives.
The second half of the book, which focuses more on the younger generation, provides a more typical read, one we would expect from J.K. Rowling. It is this aspect of the book that Rowling’s loyal readers will enjoy. However the reader has to get through the dogmatic details of Parish Council. Something that may well be lost on the international reader (those not in the UK). The inner workings of a small town are quite particular to the UK and it will be interesting to see if readers can align themselves with this ‘small town’ book.
Rowling has strayed from the usual book about idyllic local community life, which tends to focus on endearing, eccentric characters. By including a local election she has created a focal point for the book, an event, which sets in motion certain behavior, bringing out the worst in almost every character.
It is not a book her loyal readers may take to, but Rowling might just gain new readers with her dark, gritty adult novel.
With such enormous expectations, the post Harry Potter book was always going to be difficult for J.K. Rowling. She has left behind fantasy and writing for children to pen a refreshingly singular book. The similarities to Harry Potter are few, none in the storyline, but the writing is recognisably Rowling.
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