By Abigail Parker
J. K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, is not a Harry Potter book. Far from an adventure to inspire millions of children, the novel treats many of the most sensitive and difficult issues in society: poverty, abuse, mental illness, rape, addiction, self-harm, and death.
The book follows the story of several local families during an election in the fictional town of Pagford. The election is held to replace Councillor Barry Fairbrother, a popular local figure and coach of a girls’ rowing team. Fairbrother grew up in a public housing development known as the Fields that is near the town, but then excelled through the education system offered to him in Pagford and entered the upper middle class. On the Parish Council, he fights to keep the Fields a part of Pagford, against an opposition that resents the urban influences that the Pagford’s association with the Fields brought into the town.
Rowling said, “I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t had a few years where I had been really as poor as it’s possible to go in the UK without being homeless.” Indeed, in the years before Harry Potter, she lived on government benefits, like her characters in the Fields, but she is now solidly on the other side of the spectrum after the worldwide success of Potter. So she is on Fairbrother’s side, right? But, perhaps the greatest accomplishment of The Casual Vacancy is that it has no obvious bias. It exposes the nuances of politics, but readers are left to form their own opinions about where each side is in the wrong.
As much as the book is defined by its political backdrop, the strength of the story comes from how it treats the emotions of its characters, many of whom are teenagers. Rowling presents the realistic thoughts of a range of characters of all ages and backgrounds in a third person narration that describes a different character’s thoughts in each section. Every person who reads this book will identify with at least one of the characters. The book draws readers in with its presentation that feelings that anyone could have drive the actions of these characters. Every character in the book is undeniably flawed, and each reader must decide individually which ones to forgive for their flaws and which to detest for them.
The Casual Vacancy’s personal discussions of very real issues are poignant. With this book, Rowling has established herself as a writer with varied talents, not just the creator of one sensation. Loyal Harry Potter fans looking for more of what they love will be disappointed, but as they have matured since the Potter years, they may find something new to love and think about in The Casual Vacancy. This book is going to spawn neither obsessions nor fanfiction. The world it creates in vivid detail is not magical; it is the world in which we all live. I am still very much a J. K. Rowling fan because the gritty, mature content of the book has shown the versatility of her ability to bring characters to life and make a point about humanity while doing it. However, this book will createm a clear distinction between J. K. Rowling fans and Harry Potter fans.