Like many who have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter series, I was curious to see what J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy would be like. I was eager to read it, but not excited enough to run out and buy it as soon as it was released. As I waited for my requested copy to come in through the library, I began to grow a little wary. I saw several reviews of the book along the lines of, "it's well written, but nothing really happens in the story and it wouldn't be a big deal if it came from any other author" that my expectations were lowered enough to make me approach the book with caution. But now, after finishing it, I feel confident telling anyone who might be on the fence about reading it to throw caution to the wind and jump in. If you liked Rowling's writing in Harry Potter, I think you'll enjoy this too, even in spite of its vastly different subject matter.
The subject matter of The Casual Vacancy sounds banal enough--a small British village is up in arms when a local councilman dies and a special election is held to fill his seat. For a story that takes place in a tiny geographic world, it's peopled with a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, all finely and realistically drawn, and all preoccupied with their own set of prejudices and conflict, some petty, some not. They view the village's election through the lens of these preoccupations. As a result, we see how the unexpected death of one seemingly ordinary man has a ripple effect on the lives of a widely diverse group of people.
Many other reviews of the book I've read have made the same point I'm about to make, but it bears repeating--The Casual Vacancy truly is for adults and many of its characters deal with troubling social issues that aren't really appropriate for young children. What I think it does have in common with Harry Potter, though, aside from Rowling's skill as a vivid storyteller, is an unflinching views of its subjects. As the Harry Potter series progressed, I recall that critics frequently pointed out the way that those books, in a departure from many other children's books, openly dealt with death and loss in their storylines. The Casual Vacancy is equally open and honest about the flaws of its characters. Every character in the book is obviously flawed, some to a fatal degree. It's an ambiguous world in which the "good" characters can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the "bad" ones. Yet event the blatantly "bad" characters, as annoying and hateful as can be, are portrayed with nuance and complexity. Although many of the characters and their actions are by no means likable, they're all fascinating. In this way, The Casual Vacancy is both a big departure for Rowling and a book that continues to play to her one big strength--creating vivid imaginary worlds that readers can spend endless amounts of time getting lost in.