J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: We’ve Read It, Here’s What We Think

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It’s not really possible to open The Casual Vacancy without a lot of expectations both high and low crashing around in your brain and distorting your vision. There’s no point pretending they’re not there. I know I had a lot of, let’s call them feelings when I opened the book (which happened on Sept. 22; I work for the military-industrial-entertainment complex, let’s just leave it at that). I have spent many, many hours reading J.K. Rowling’s work. I am a known Harry Potter fan.

I also know enough literary sabermetrics to be aware that the odds of the book’s being good were not short. A lot of young-adult authors, great ones, have tried their hands at literary fiction, and not a lot of them have succeeded. Not even Roald Dahl could switch-hit, and not for lack of trying. All the available evidence suggests that it’s simply a different kind of talent. The most successful example I can think of is T.S. Eliot writing both The Waste Land and also Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And that’s not even a very good example.

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But after about 10 pages of The Casual Vacancy, I began to forget about all that stuff and the online rumors about how the book was amazing or awful or had lots of sex in it. I forgot about how I had three days to write a review of a 500-page book. I forgot about everything except the pages in front of me.

What surprised me about The Casual Vacancy was not just how good it was, but the particular way in which it was good. I suppose I’d expected a kind of aged-up, magicked-down Harry Potter, something that showcased the same strengths the Potter books do: meticulous plotting, inventiveness, a love of mischief, likable characters, a knack for visual spectacle. I also expected it to showcase their weaknesses, because all books have them. Yes, I’m a fanboy, but I still think the Potter books have too many adverbs in them, and not enough sex.

But The Casual Vacancy is a different beast entirely. It was not what I was expecting. It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, very upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures, it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize. This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very well. It’s as if Rowling were an animagus, except that instead of turning into a stag or a dog or whatever, she transformed into Ian McEwan.

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Before I get into the plot of The Casual Vacancy I want to call out one character in particular, a sardonic, smart-mouthed schoolboy known as Fats, because he’s an instructive point of comparison. Having read all 4,000-and-whatever pages of the Harry Potter series, I thought I’d heard most of what Rowling had to say about the inner workings of teenage boys. I was wrong. Here’s Fats skipping school — he wears his uniform “with the disdain of a convict” — and thinking about his life and his obsession with what he calls authenticity:

The mistake ninety-nine percent of humanity made, as far as Fats could see, was being ashamed of what they were; lying about it, trying to be somebody else. Honesty was Fats’ currency, his weapon and defense. It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them. Other people, Fats had discovered, were mired in embarrassment and pretense, terrified that their truths might leak out, but Fats was attracted by rawness, by everything that was ugly but honest, by the dirty things about which the likes of his father felt humiliated and disgusted. Fats thought a lot about messiahs and pariahs; about men labeled mad or criminal; noble misfits shunned by the sleepy masses.

Fats, like so many adolescents, has grasped a truth and then made the mistake of believing it to be the whole truth. He could be talking about Harry Potter in that last sentence — messiahs, pariahs, noble misfits — but where Harry lives a fantasy (magic is real, he’s secretly the Chosen One) Fats must coordinate between reality and fantasy, which is a very different task indeed. Long before you get to the “splendid breasts and … miraculously unguarded vagina” of the girl Fats is meeting later for a callous, hasty shag in a graveyard, you know you’re not in Hogwarts anymore, or even in its affiliated den of sin Hogsmeade.

Jane Austen once advised a young writer that “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” Rowling is on the Austen plan here. The Casual Vacancy is set in a small, picturesque English town called Pagford. It begins with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, which is locked in an internal struggle over the Fields, a low-income housing development on the border with Pagford’s larger and less lapidary neighbor Yarvil. Some Pagfordians resent the burden of the Fields, the petty crime and the addicts in need of rehab and the children in need of education, and they want to rezone it as part of Yarvil and be done with it. Barry was sympathetic to the Fields, but his death creates an opening on the council — the technical term is a casual vacancy — and in their unseemly haste to fill it, Pagfordians on both sides expose their carefully concealed inner lives. (Rowling may or may not be teasing fans when she writes that “they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.”)

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Based on that pitch alone, The Casual Vacancy would seem to be light social satire, a skewering of small-town foibles and hypocrisies, but Rowling has always been more ambitious than that. Her interest is in the emotional and social chasms that yawn between us and the grotesque emotional wounds we inflict on those on the other side, always in the belief that we’re acting in righteous self-defense.

Rowling arranges her characters not in neat opposing ranks but in a complex web. Among the solid citizens we meet are Colin, a neurotic deputy headmaster (and the adoptive father of Fats) who wants to carry on Barry’s work; Howard, a deli owner and the leader of the anti-Fields lobby, who’s as fat and nasty as Vernon Dursley but less funny; Miles, Howard’s son and Barry’s former business partner, whom Howard is grooming for the empty spot; Kay, a social worker who visits families in the Fields, including that of Krystal (she of the splendid breasts), whom Barry coached in rowing. It’s in this intricate Gordian tangle — and that’s about a quarter of the full tangle — that one sees most clearly the patient hand that built Harry Potter’s world, a fictional universe so detailed and believable that an entire generation has pretty much chosen to live there. (No one would choose to live in Pagford. But unfortunately we already do.)

The characters can’t go five minutes without lying to someone else or to themselves — the psychic currency of Pagford consists of “things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised” — and when they do at last try to tell the truth, they discover that the tools at hand, words, are pitifully inadequate for the task. Rowling, by contrast, shows off a new descriptive dexterity, an extra verbal gear that until now she kept in reserve: a used condom in the grass is “the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”; an old woman’s fingers are “a clutch of bulging knuckles covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin.” Etc.

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In Pagford, everybody believes they’re the hero of the story, but as the novel’s point of view restlessly shifts, we see each character recast again and again as villain, victim, fool, lover, ally, traitor. The sexually precocious Krystal is a daughter of the Fields, and each side uses her to bludgeon the other: she’s a cautionary tale, a model of educability, a bully, a fiercely loyal sister who is the only thing keeping her family together. (The story of Krystal and her shattered tribe is the most utterly wrenching thing in the book. Her mother Terri is a hopeless heroin addict, and she plays as a villain for much of the book, until Rowling takes us inside her point of view and shows us why she has to get high, at which point the case against her crumbles.) As the vote over the vacancy approaches, the fight descends into a hail of body blows. Jobs, marriages, reputations and people themselves go down in the fray. Rowling has always had ruthless writerly discipline — this is the woman who killed Hedwig — and she pulls no punches here. And there is no Dumbledore to step in at the end to give everything a meaning and declare a moral victor.

It’s rare to see a writer whom you think you know well unfold a new dimension like this, a dimension you didn’t even suspect existed. The Casual Vacancy is, in a funny way, not so much an extension of the Harry Potter books as their negative image: it’s a painfully arbitrary and fallen world, a world that, bereft as it is of the magic that animates and ennobles Hogwarts, sags and cracks under its own weight. After his furtive coupling with Krystal, a melancholy, postcoital Fats “wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom.” Harry would have apparated there. But Fats, like the rest of us, must take the long way home.

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32 comments
David Byerlee
David Byerlee

Speaking as a novelist and English teacher I have tried to read the Harry Potter series without success. I respect the views of Mr Grossman and very much want to read The Casual Vacancy  after such a glowing review.

David Byerlee
David Byerlee

An excellent review. even though I am a novelist and an English teacher I haven't been able to get through any of the Harry Potter books although not through lack of trying. Mr Grossman speaks highly of  The Casual vacancy and I respect his opinion so I shall give this novel a go ASAP. 

Clay Witt
Clay Witt

I too came at this book, which I finished reading late last

night, with high expectations. Having thoroughly enjoyed Rowling’s amazing

display of imagination and craft in the Potter series, I anticipated that the

writing, character development, and plot construction would be excellent.  They were. 

And the eternal gulf between the haves and haves-nots and the contrast

between the grittiness of life and idealized romanticism is worthy territory to

explore. 

 

What I did not anticipate was the spirit grinding

oppressiveness of a novel in which the most genuinely worthy character dies

unpleasantly in the first five pages and it is mostly an all-downhill ride

through dysfunction from there.  All in

all I came away thinking that a razor blade and a basin should be furnished

with every copy.  Ultimately it did not

tell me much I did not already know and I wish I had not read it.

Shalena Taylor
Shalena Taylor

I was about 5 when the first book came out. I started reading them when I was around 8 or 9. As a child, I would have been grossed out and completely turned away from the Potter series if it had included sex and teenage hormones. It seems like some of you don't remember that this series was written as children's books, not adult's. Children don't need to be reading about those things. They want fairy tales, magic, fantasy, and things of that sort. And honestly, even now if I had just started reading the series, I would find it to be of bad taste that she included sex in them. Leave the sex for her adult novels, not Harry Potter.

Ward Thompson
Ward Thompson

Your review's Casual Vacancy quote -- "It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them." -- intrigued me since I speak Noel Coward's line "It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit" from "Blithe Spirit" in our current local theater production.  Ward Thompson

Ward Thompson
Ward Thompson

Your Casual Vacancy quote -- "It frightened people when you were honest; it shocked them." -- intrigued me since I speak Noel Coward's line "It is discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit" from "Blithe Spirit" in our current local theater production.  Ward Thompson

tinatrent
tinatrent

Much as I expect TIME Magazine to wallow in trite transgressions, is it too much to ask that you refrain from using words like "b******t" in your book reviews?  Is any standard too much of a standard?  This was once a magazine that offered readers quality content.  

Joshua Allen
Joshua Allen

While descriptive this review falters on one key aspect: The author views this work through the Harry Potter lens with multiple references/comparisons to it. Although Grossmans does admit to being a Harry Potter fanboy, a book review needs to divorce their fanboyism when reviewing a different work, especially one of a completely different genre.

olaf78
olaf78

"The most successful example I can think of is T.S. Eliot writing both The Waste Land and also Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And that’s not even a very good example."

What about Diana Wynne Jones? Do you mean 'out of genre' as a definition for adult fiction? 'Spose it's all subjective. But really. DWJ is good at all of it.

Agnibha Basumallick
Agnibha Basumallick

Finally a worthwhile review from someone who, wonder of wonders, have actually read the book, but still I find it a little too shallow.

I read the book and loved every minutes of reading. But its still too early, so I'll rather let the others read first before putting my spoilers.

"The story of Krystal and her shattered tribe is the most utterly wrenching thing in the book."

True. But Krystal is worth it. Worth reading the hurt, "the wrenching thing."

Doug Walker
Doug Walker

This is a fascinating perspective about you and your fan relationship with Rowling! Can't wait to read the second installment in which you review her new book.

wolflax44
wolflax44

" Interesting indeed", having not read the "Harry Potter" books but, loved the movies, I'm interested to read this. I do however have to comment on the, and I quote, "not enough sex" in the Harry Potter books or movies. Is it not the flow of emotions in todays youth that "waiting till you are married" isn't even in the same zip code? I commend Ms Rowlings for being above the "norm" and giving us a chance to not have to deal with emotions of "sex" and youth. This reveiw is interesting in that it sounds like Ms. Rowlings could have used the "sex" card in the Harry Potter series but, went above the flow of society. Diversity is great if used to improve society. 

Tomasz_Pelczar
Tomasz_Pelczar

As the deeper teenager I had liked and appreciate Her books much more then I appreciate right now, within my younger times I had been in example fascinated by story of Daniel Defoe, which had been talking about the very brave and interesting Robinson Cruzoe, my very favorite book had been written by Hugh Lofting and talking about the life of the sexy and smooth guy, who had got closer interaction to the animals as the doctor of the medicine,  the ultimate good had been stories written by Jules Verne, very good book had been in example about the count Monte Christo and his adventures, very interesting is our human Bible, brothers Grimm had written few fascinative stories, like also Andersen or Esop, within more and harder action I had found this something a little bit later within books by mstr. Masterton, Stephen King, Albert Camus or Agatha Christi (etc), later I had been more interesting in the harder related to the life books like biographies, science (IT, management, physic, history, mechatronic the etc), and also sometimes sports (in example biography of Pele, history of Capoeira, Men's Health the etc) plus music  (one of he best had been on my opinion written by Sting) ... I had been reading especially during travels around my hometown on Krakow ... I had read one of Harry Potter on english many, many years ago and same like in case of in example James Fenimore Cooper I had many other contacts within the lectures and thought about the read some more ... 

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

Looks interesting, but at 17.99 for Kindle, I'll wait a while.

formerlyjamesm
formerlyjamesm

Looks interesting, but at $17.99 for Kindle, I'll wait a while.

22635
22635

Grossman's  review reminds me of the advise given to an aspiring book reviewer by -- if I'm not mistaken -- Alone, the Chilean critic who defined an era in his country's literature:

"Stay out of it! You are not one of the characters."

Edit Katona
Edit Katona

I've never read or seen Harry Potter adventures, I just wasn't interested. But I think I will read this one....:-)

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Mr. Grossman, you almost lost me at your mention of your work with the (Security) Military Industrial complex, but because I admire Rowling's work and incredible brain, I proceeded. Your overall review is intriguing. I look forward to reading the book. The piece on other authors was a good read, too, and makes me wonder if Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) will pen an adult novel. If so, I hope she sticks with strong female role models.

Rob Huckins
Rob Huckins

Very good and interesting review overall, but I think the columnist is way off on Roald Dahl, who became a very, very good short story writer in addition to his prowess in children's literature. His faux critique of the Harry Potter series having "not enough sex" was also derivative and in poor taste--grow up, Mr. Grossman.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Agree about the "not enough sex" remark in Potter books. Ignorant comment.

bookshipper
bookshipper

Knowing that this reviewer is the author of The Magicians, I don't think he meant that remark as a derivative or faux critique at all. I think he was making the point that many other fans of Harry Potter have made: namely that Rowling's depiction of adolescent sexuality is hamfisted at best and disingenuous at worst.

SteveKaKa
SteveKaKa

Kenneth explained I'm shocked that a single mom able to earn $4268 in one month on the network. did you look at this (Click on menu Home)

Jimnammack
Jimnammack

I read all the Harry Potter books, and I thought it was unrealistic in the extreme for Rowling to develop her characters from childhood to puberty to adolescence with no mention at all of the emergent raging hormones which deeply affect all other adolescents on this planet.  I was aghast at the omission.

Rumionemore
Rumionemore

Take your point but I'll stick with Rowling's wisdom (and astounding success) in presenting sex in a subtle way in Potter. Maybe her  message for the young is that sex is not everything. At its best it equates with health and utter pleasure. At worst, it's the cause of untold suffering, pain, disease, depression and ruined lives. Let the kids have their magic for at least awhile.

dragonjax
dragonjax

This sounds utterly brilliant. Can't wait to read it!

Paul ±
Paul ±

This is awesome, I can't wait to read it. I was a bit surprised thought that the BS word was published in a literary review. :))