The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
J.K. Rowling’s follow-up novel to the Harry Potter series doesn't have a witch, wizard, house elf or centaur in sight. The setting for this book is completely earth-bound. The only garden gnomes you’ll find are of the ceramic variety, sitting on the (mostly) well-manicured lawns in the tiny fictional West Country parish of Pagford. This is where Rowling sets her latest book, which chronicles the pandemonium that ensues when one of its well-placed citizens, Barry Fairbrother, dies suddenly, leaving his parish council seat vacant in the midst of a polarizing boundary dispute that has the townsfolk warring amongst themselves.
The ensuing scramble for Barry’s empty council seat becomes as dirty a campaign as any sprawling metropolis can proffer. Pagford’s citizens have plenty of secrets and dark sides, indiscretions (past and present), family feuds, class warfare, high school bullying and dire domestic circumstances which, thanks to some computer hacking and an ever-present small-town gossip brigade, don’t stay hidden for long.
Rowling’s deft ability to draw complete, multidimensional characters, who are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, is legendary from the Potter books (was there ever a more flawed, occasionally feckless hero than Harry Potter?). She continues that tradition here. Every character is perched on the brink of destruction and/or redemption, and the story moves quickly through the events that seem designed to test them all to capacity. She cleverly uses the mundanity of very small town life to set off real problems that real people have every day, that when viewed from the inside, seem bigger than one life can hold. The voices of her characters are true and believable, especially among the teenagers. She doesn’t get overly cute with her descriptions of their world (she is most certainly personally acquainted with the experience of raising a teen), and she manages in the end to avoid an ending that’s pat and definitive. The book begins in media res and ends pretty much the same way, presumably because that’s how life begins and ends.
A satisfying, face-paced read with humor and intelligence, Rowling has proven she can write outside of Hogwarts, with an eye for an older audience.
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