J.K. Rowling’s contribution to literature has always been to remind us why we love reading in the first place, and her new novel, “The Casual Vacancy” continues the cause.
Rowling’s first work for adults and first book not set in the Harry Potter universe stands on its own merits while maintaining its characteristic “Rowlingness” — her pacing and structure, her social conscience, her heart.
“The Casual Vacancy,” released Thursday, is an old-fashioned novel in the tradition of Dickens or his modern-day counterpart Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections,” “Freedom”). There’s a spider web of connected characters, all making their own small threads as part of a larger tapestry of humanity.
Situations progress from bad to worse until everything explodes into a drama-filled ending. Physically, emotionally or both, no character ends in the same place he or she started out. (You can imagine a television adaptation in the works already.)
The death of Barry Fairbrother (rhymes with Harry; certainly no coincidence) divides the small West Country town of Pagford. Despised by some for his politics and single-minded advocacy for troubled teen Krystal Weedon, Barry overcame a disadvantaged childhood to become a parish councilor and rowing coach. His friends and supporters mourn his loss as a force for good and justice in the community.
His death leaves a vacancy on the parish council, just as this town board is poised to vote on a decades-long debate. Pagford has jurisdiction over an addiction clinic and a nearby public housing project called the Fields. One faction aims to shut down the clinic and shunt responsibility for the Fields onto the neighboring, larger town of Yarvil. Barry, who grew up in the Fields, led the opposition.
Three candidates emerge to fill Barry’s seat: Miles Mollison, son of First Citizen Howard (“If only Pagford District had been granted borough status, he would have been able to call himself Mayor”); Colin “Cubby” Wall, the local high school’s deputy headmaster and one of Barry’s closest friends; and Simon Price, a relative outsider among Pagford’s tight-knit community.
With the election looming, the parish council website is infiltrated by an entity calling itself “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother,” dragging the candidates’ and councilors’ dirty laundry into public view and straining the already tense relationships between husbands and wives, parents and their teenage children.
Miles’ wife, Samantha, drowns her discontent in wine and her daughter’s boy-band DVDs. Colin dissolves into anxiety and paranoia while his son Stuart, aka “Fats,” acts out in the name of “authenticity.” Sukhvinder Jawanda, daughter of the town doctor, suffers under the weight of bullying and parental ignorance. Krystal Weedon struggles to hold her disintegrating family together without the support of her mentor. Andrew Price, son of the abusive Simon, finds courage and agency while he pursues the beautiful newcomer Gaia.
Rowling rotates chapters among many characters’ points of view and brings the omniscient voice to play in large ensemble scenes where we jump from character to character, enjoying a panoramic view of the community and its individual, interrelated conflicts.
Like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” books, this shifting perspective erases distinctions between heroes and villains. Characters we’re initially inclined to dislike gradually soften as we learn their insecurities, and ones with charisma and good intentions turn out to be horrific bullies or have blind spots when it comes to their own families.
Rowling’s books operate on the traditional idea that literature should delight and instruct, and the themes of social responsibility and empathy loom large here. Inability to recognize other people’s humanity seems to be the key failing in Pagford. (“He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, not to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own”; “Lately, Andrew had asked himself whether Simon even saw other humans as real”; “Gavin tended to forget that Gaia had any independent existence at all.”)
Much sensation has been made in recent days of the language and adult situations in the novel. It certainly is not for kids or those scandalized by the idea of a children’s author writing such things. But it’s not as if the narrator of Harry Potter has suddenly gone HBO. The voice here is wholly committed to this book and this story. Lines like “ the town petered out in a final wheeze of old cottages” feel like classic Rowling, but it’s easy to forget for long stretches that this novel has anything to do with Hogwarts.
That said, a Harry Potter reader will find plenty of parallels in the characters and concerns here. Amid all the levitation spells and Christmas feasts, this is, after all, the writer who gave us the Dursley family, Draco Malfoy, the bullying of and by Severus Snape, and the corrupt Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge.
The affectionate, close-knit, ginger Fairbrother children (including a set of twins) could be a real-world extension of the Weasleys. Simon shares Uncle Vernon’s tendency toward epic rages. Andrew’s abusive father and his infatuation with copper-haired Gaia recall the late-revealed devotion of Snape for Lily Potter. Andrew, especially, becomes more Harry-like as the story progresses.
At times, the quaint setting and omniscient narrator lull the reader into a sense of being inside a storybook, a world as fictional and removed as Hogwarts. But if heroin addiction and cyber sabotage don’t provide enough real-world weight, a well-employed cameo by Rihanna’s hit song “Umbrella” tethers the story’s bubble to a specific context.
In the last 15 years, since the arrival of her first Potter book, Rowling has been more of a storyteller than a writer. She favors coming right out with things — characters’ fears, resentments, personal philosophies — over Franzenian verbal flourishes or poetical description. It doesn’t take an advanced English degree to figure out “The Casual Vacancy.” But when you finish, there’s no denying that you have been told a story by someone who knows just what she’s doing.