Reviewing Rowling’s Latest

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Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Five years since the last Harry Potter book was released, JK Rowling has made a strong return with her rich novel, The Casual Vacancy. Although it may not be the cure for postPotter depression that many fans were hoping for — it takes place in the Muggle world — the book is a satisfying portrayal of a small, dysfunctional English town and its selfish and inconsiderate inhabitants.

Vacancy opens with the natural death of Barry Fairbrother, a town leader with a passion for reforming the Fields (the town’s poor and crime ridden district). In his death, he becomes something of a religious figure, with part of the town preaching Barry’s message and part seeing him as a radical nuisance.

After his death, the town erupts into a web of social wars. Nasty accusations are posted on the town’s website, relationships crumble, and the pleasant quaint town is revealed to be hostile behind its ominously closed doors. Most characters lack the ability to think of anyone but themselves, or to imagine any situation but their own. The selfishness and cruelty of these people is so potent that more than once I found myself thinking, “What’s the matter with you people?”

Rowling uses a third person limited omniscient narrator and switches between the minds of various characters (a change from her Harry Potter days). This works very well for the book, which is essentially a study of these very private small town dwellers. Characters’ true natures are revealed not through their actions but through their inner thoughts. As the book winds on it becomes clear that everyone has built up a social facade.

But for one character the equation seems to be flipped. Krystal Weedon is unloved by most of the town. The only people she ever had were Barry Fairbrother, her crew coach, and her grandmother. She gets into fights, sleeps around, and is rude to everyone she comes in contact with. Rowling unfolds Krystal’s story beautifully and we see not only why Krystal acts the way she does but that her drive in life is rooted in love and hope— in direct contrast with the other characters. It is in Krystal that we recognize some of the Gryffindor spirit we know so well.

The book was tagged as a dark comedy but I could not spot the comedy amidst all the darkness. Multiple characters die and the issue of extreme poverty— and the violence and drug use it brings—is central to the story. While the switching between narrators benefits the story overall the transitions are sometimes ungraceful. Before the characters become developed with their own unique voice it can be confusing to keep track of who is narrating.

Such minor issues are not enough to deter new readers or loyal fans of Rowling’s writing. With The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling has shown us the ugliness of a small town and its values. In this fictional British town we can see our own hometowns and the values that people around us hold dear—and we might not like what we see.