The Casual Vacancy offers hope of fresh literary magic – for adults – to rock our worlds

By Elizabeth Gleick
Updated September 27, 2012 07:00 AM
Credit: Little, Brown and Company; Inset:Landov

One million copies preordered. Fifty Shades of Grey and No Easy Day knocked from the top of the bestseller lists. It almost doesn’t matter whether J.K. Rowling’s new book is any good: For famished fans with no nourishment from the beloved Harry Potter author since 2007, the Sept. 27 publication of The Casual Vacancy, her new novel – not safe for children! – offers hope of fresh literary magic to rock our worlds.

Well, we’re not at Hogwarts anymore. We are, however, sort of in Little Whinging, home to young Harry’s hideous relatives, the Dursleys – only in The Casual Vacancy the provincial English town full of monstrous adults and miserable teenagers is called Pagford, and there’s no Hagrid to swoop in on a motorcycle and take us somewhere more fun.

Described pre-publication as a “comedy of manners,” The Casual Vacancy is not all that funny. It is instead a tough, ambitious book full of heartbreak and grim social commentary about the smugness of the haves and the desperation of the have-nots. Have we mentioned that this is not a children’s book?

In 503 pages Rowling touches on a litany of modern woes. Bullying? Check. Cutting? Check. Debilitating anxiety? Yep. Racism, rape, heroin addiction, disappointment, death – they’re all here, tied up in a densely populated, intricately plotted tale of small-town intrigue.

The book’s title refers to a position on the Pagford Parish Council left vacant after one member, the well-meaning Barry Fairbrother, drops dead unexpectedly in the opening pages. As various villagers angle to replace him, an ugly split emerges between those who want to get rid of the Fields, a crumbling housing estate (Britspeak for low-income homes) on the outskirts of the picturesque town, and those who have sympathy for the Fields’ lower class families, especially teenager Krystal Weedon, the daughter of a junkie.

Despite tough topics and maybe 50 extra pages, Rowling has produced a vivid read with great, memorable characters and a truly emotional payoff; those 400-plus million copies sold of Harry Potter books were no coincidence.

Rowling captures the humanity in everyone, even if that humanity is not always a pretty sight. And – though creating Harry Potter was more than enough – if Rowling wants to convince the world that she can cast other spells, she has succeeded.