Even though I’m a huge Harry Potter fan I was determined to approach Rowling’s adult novel fairly: I knew not to expect unicorns, magic wands or anything to do with her First Series. I only decided I wasn’t being entirely unbiased when I kept reading even after one-third of the book failed to interest me. I would’ve given up on most other authors by then.
The Casual Vacancy is the story of Dursleys who never got to care for a magical nephew. Just to be clear: it’s not a bad book. It’s decently written and the story, as much as there is of it, holds up. But I spent three days reading it when I could’ve been sorting my socks for a greater benefit.
This is the story through which Rowling obviously wanted to demonstrate that she is a serious, adult writer. So almost everything you can think of that constitutes an adult theme makes it into the novel: drug (and other) abuse, sexual (and other) violence, self-mutilation, bullying and zits. Pagford is, in short, a town of petty degenerates, and those not wicked are weak and tired. And I get that it’s the theme, how vice lives under the idyllic small-town façade (because it’s really not a difficult book; moral decay is symbolized by a ruined monastery so there you go) but I wish the characters had more going for themselves than just embodying various moral or social ills. The thing that made Harry Potter series such a success was precisely how colorful and believable Rowling made the characters: here you can feel she simply dislikes all of them. I don’t know if success turned her into a misanthrope (I can certainly imagine it happening) but if the author doesn’t care for her characters, why would I?
Much as Rowling wants to a leave Pottering days behind, she still writes best about teenagers: theirs were the only somewhat memorable situations. The main conflict of the novel, on the other hand, the one between conservatives and social progressives, not only failed to engage me (I never cared enough about Pagford to bother about its administrative difficulties), it was also heavily drawn. One side is presented as a bunch of grotesque hypocrites, the other (the one obviously meant to be in the right) are mostly inadequate and emotionally messed. Also, I need to take an unpopular stand, but despite all the attempts to convince us otherwise, the despicable anti-slums characters are not completely wrong: the decrepit area they want to get rid of seems to be a true problem for the town, sneakily dumped on it in the past. What is most blatantly missing, is a little depth in the presentation of both characters and issues. After all, (good) adult literature consists not so much of shocking scenes of home violence as of sensitive and multilayered analysis.
One of the more revolting characters of the novel (if you can even grade them), Stuart Wall, makes himself and, mostly, others miserable through his quest for social “authenticity.” If his portrayal is not intentionally self-ironic for the author, I guess it should be.