Authors of genre fiction – particularly horror, fantasy, or mystery – often find that if they try to work outside the genre they’re popular for, their more ambitious work is often put under scrutiny and skepticism. Some like Agatha Christie would write under pseudonyms to free their work from the baggage of their more successful novels – J.K. Rowling, the author known for her Harry Potter series understood this from first-hand experience when she was identified as Robert Galbraith, the author of the critically successful crime thriller, The Cuckoo’s Calling. She expressed understandable disappointment at being outed because she was hoping for a space for The Cuckoo’s Calling independent of the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter books.
And she had good reason for being guarded. Her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy was burdened with the shadow of Harry Potter – and while the novel did receive good notices, some of the more mixed reviews couldn’t help but indulge in puns of Rowling failing to conjure up the “magic” of her more popular works.
Once Robert Galbraith’s secret identity was revealed, online literary sleuths started to do textual analysis between some of Rowling’s books – the Harry Potter books – to pinpoint where Rowling had betrayed herself. While reading The Casual Vacancy, I admit I did none of this; I only read about half of the Harry Potter books, losing some interest, despite my admiration for Rowling’s talent and accomplishment.
But I did find some thematic similarities. Mainly in relation to Rowling’s interest in social justice and the plight of children in need or at-risk. It’s interesting that in her critical review, Jan Moir, the conservative columnist from the Daily Mail, who intimated that Boyzone singer Stephen Gately’s early death (through an undiagnosed heart condition) was due to his homosexuality, found the novel to be a socialist manifesto. It’s through the protracted, bipartisan debate that concern for the poor and disadvantaged as suddenly become socialism.
And there’s a lot of social criticism of the social inequity that plagues contemporary British society – among other ills, Rowling takes on racism, class distinction, alienation, schoolyard bullying. There’s a lot – but Rowling gives herself a lot of space – over 500 pages – so she can take on each problem, without necessarily offering any pat solutions.
The plot is a large, sprawling epic that takes place in the tiny English town of Pagford. The local parish council just loses its popular member, Barry Fairbrother to a brain aneurism. His death sets off an ugly competition for his place on the council. Part of the reason for this desperation among those involved is that Pagford has been saddled with a council estate, “The Fields,” that has become a point of contention among the residents, who want to be freed from responsibility for the council flats and the drug rehabilitation center that serves many of The Fields’ residents.
In a novel of this size and scope, Rowling has created – like in her Harry Potter books – a fictional world populated by a intricate and believable cast of characters. Like in the Potter books, the author has three children be the focal point of the plot – in Potter, we have the title character and his two best friends, Ron Weasely and Hermione Granger.
In The Casual Vacancy, we have Andrew “Arf” Price, Stuart “Fats” Wells, and Krystal Wheedon. Arf and Fats are best friends, underachievers, who find solace in their friendship – a solace that shields them from their imperfect worlds. Arf’s father Simon, a candidate for the parish council, is a violent brute of a man, fond of petty larceny. Fats, on the other hand, is a feckless youth, whose father, an ineffectual, effete nonentity, is headmaster at his school, and his mom’s the school’s guidance counselor. Krystal is a rough, sullen young teen whose mother is a heroin-addicted prostitute who is perennially in danger of losing custody of Krystal and her toddler brother, Robbie.
It’s with these three adolescent characters that Rowling does some of her most obvious, but on-point social criticism. Krystal in particular, works as a warning against drug addiction as well as systematic and institutional indifference to drug addicts’ needs. Krystal’s mother, Terri, cannot seem to step out of the tar-like grip of her addiction. The local rehab clinic, Bellchapel, is Terri’s lifeline – the only that’s keeping Robbie and Krystal at home. The locals’ enthusiasm for shutting down Bellchapel is seen as being short-sighted and myopic – keen on quantifiable success rates, opponents of Bellchapel call for statistics on how successful the rehab clinic is in helping its clients; the supporters of Bellchapel are pushing for a more complex look at the work of the clinic.
Because Rowling is creating a world free of magic and spells, she is free to write about these complicated issues without the gauze of allegory. When writing the Potter books, Rowling is just as interested in political and social topics – racism, the disintegration of civil liberties, sexism, poverty, slavery – but uses her fantasy world to address these problems. House-elves stand in for slaves, Dolores Umbridge is the Hogwarts answer to George W. Bush, and the unmagical Muggles can be seen as being treated as racial or ethnic minorities.
But there is none of these literary covers are used in The Casual Vacancy, but this isn’t a socialist tract as Jan Moir asserts. Instead, this epic novel shows that small, isolated, insular towns and villages can be just as marked by social blight as the urban centers; and it’s interesting to note that Rowling also makes the case that this kind of social blight isn’t necessarily marked by race – a former London social worker, Kay Bawden, made a comment that the problems facing The Fields are the same she encountered in the London inner city, but with less racial diversity (just a quick perusal through a comment thread of any story about urban blight will show just how racialized the topic has become).
But beneath all the social relevance of The Casual Vacancy lies a really good story – I read all 500 pages in just two days – my Saturday morning was devoted to a marathon-like reading session because I couldn’t put the book down. What Rowling did so successfully is the same thing Margaret Mitchell did in the equally sprawling Gone with the Wind – she was able to construct a reality that I cared about and one in which I felt fully immersed.
And even though I tried to separate the book from Harry Potter I couldn’t help finding interlocking themes – but the differences are very stark. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have much more autonomy than Arf, Fats, and Krystal – but that autonomy is mostly due to magic. This important difference reminded me of 1960s television, particularly family sitcoms where the wives were at the mercy, so to speak, to their husbands; but in Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, the wives had the upperhand, but their source of feminine power was derived solely from magic.
So, I feel that when Rowling was writing Harry Potter, there was a sense of wish-fulfillment – that children in the real world are among the most vulnerable in our society, so she fixes this issue in her fictional world, by making the kids powerful enough to operate on an equal footing with the adults.
The kids in The Casual Vacancy do their best to assert themselves, whether it’s for the better good, or for their own salvation: Arf and Fats both feel that if their fathers run for the parish council, their families would suffer because of their dads’ inadequacies and their debits as human beings; Krystal, on the other hand, is forced at times, despite being a teenager, to be a mother-figure to her young son.
But it’s not only magic that separates The Casual Vacancy‘s trio of adolescents from that of Harry Potter; Ron, Harry, and especially Hermione are especially intelligent and dashing. There are consequences to their actions that they must face, but alongside their magical powers, they also possess preternatural maturity, cunning, and smarts. Arf, Fats, and Krystal while all sympathetic children, aren’t necessarily intelligent, and in fact they make some really poor choices – choices that have fatal effects, especially in Krystal’s and Fats’ cases. But readers always remember that these are just kids, and that their actions and behaviors stem from the poor choices of their parents. Like Charles Dickens, Rowling has a deep empathy for the children in her novel – and that shines through in The Casual Vacancy. She doesn’t imbue them with insincere or unnatural talents, but they still manage to show the shortcomings of the adults around them.
Ultimately, Rowling’s book is a success because she’s able to create an entertaining piece of fiction. The politics don’t weigh down The Casual Vacancy and don’t stand in the way of the plot. She also is an expert at braiding the various subplots carefully together – it’s not surprise that the book will be commissioned into a miniseries. Because Pagford is such a tiny town, everyone is somehow connected – and it’s the skillful folding of one storyline into another that’s most impressive when assessing Rowling’s work. If one thing is sure once one finishes The Casual Vacancy, is that she doesn’t have to rely on magic or fantasy to create a gripping tale.