THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling
I don’t know if writing about a boy who can ride a broom has anything to do with her skill, but the prose of The Casual Vacancy lifts off the page. Rowling’s words transport us without effort from one character’s milieu to the next, while weaving in personality traits with such specificity there is never a chance of feeling adrift.
We know Rowling honed her craft while documenting the complicated life of Harry Potter, but there is no magic in the town of Pagford. An undercurrent of unrest lies within each resident. Their unhappiness runs so deep it festers and causes people to lash out, damage and destroy whoever is in their path.
Anyone who remembers the hell of adolescence will get a vicarious thrill as the teens of Pagford enact revenge. This portion of the tale must have been great fun to write. However, games are not all that is underfoot and Rowling is not afraid to show the ugliness of life.
Much like Stephen King, she presents the cast of characters in isolated bubbles and then allows them to intersect until the crosshairs explode. As a King fan, I was delighted. Then around page 200 my excitement dipped. There are so many characters I couldn’t decide who I was supposed to root for. A hundred pages later, I discovered the fault was my own. Although I knew the story was character driven, for some reason, I expected the twists and turns of plot to take over and drive the novel to the finish. My own expectation took me out of the story.
The Casual Vacancy is pure ensemble, no different than an ensemble piece in the theatre. No character is more significant than another because their angst and dreams are one. The interplay between characters is so deeply rooted they have no choice other than to barrel down the jagged hill together, while exposing the dangers of small town life and the complexities of human frailty.
The domino ending leaves the reader to crawl through the dirt, then just as the last bit of rubble falls, the final words—thanks to a delicate hand—lifts the reader up.
Harry Potter may have been a wizard, but J.K. Rowling holds the magic.
Read The Casual Vacancy.