"But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky, could anybody stand to know that they all were?"-J.K. Rowling
She’s lost her touch I thought to myself as I read the first few chapters of The Casual Vacancy. This book, filled with despicable characters and foul language that read like a Jerry Springer transcript could not have possibly been written by the woman who made me love reading. As much as I’d wanted to, I did not like J.K. Rowling’s new book--but I kept at it. I felt that I somehow owed it to her to read the book in an act of loyalty, and as a thank you for everything she’d unwittingly done for me over the last 13 years. So I read on about the death of a parish councilor in the village of Pagford, and how lives would be destroyed if the wrong person filled his seat on the council.
I kept reading, and I fell in love with the broken people created by the same woman who brought Harry, Ron, and Hermione into my life. The Casual Vacancy is a “comic tragedy” to quote Rowling; it incorporates her easy humor while still being one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. This story does not have a happy ending, but it does have a realistic one. Good doesn’t conquer evil, but it certainly gives evil a run for its money.
Despite the differences between The Casual Vacancy and the Harry Potter books, there is still something distinctly “Rowling” about this novel. It’s written in third person, and there are those long, vivid descriptions of people and places. If there is one thing that she excels at it is setting the scene. There are characters we love, characters we despise, and characters we find so much of ourselves in. There is also that ever-present battle of good vs. evil, but things aren’t as black and white now as they were in her previous books.
Although a work of fiction, there is also a lot of fact in this book and it’s obvious that Rowling did a tremendous amount of research. There is also quite a bit of Rowling’s own life nestled between the pages. She portrays poverty in a way I’ve never thought about it before. All the romanticism of being being poor and living by your wits is gone, and you get the insider’s look into a world of constant uncertainty and unhappiness.
Rowling also pulls from her own life by focusing on the lives of teenagers in a much darker way than in the Harry Potter books. There’s cutting, drug use, sex, abuse: things teens shouldn’t be exposed to but are nevertheless. There are also numerous pop culture references and I assume that Rowling looked to her teenage daughter for guidance during these moments.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is also addressed extensively throughout the book. Rowling battled OCD in her teen years (most people are diagnosed with OCD at 19), and has said she had to do a lot of re-checking and rituals, but doesn’t feel the need to anymore. OCD is an issue close to me and I’m glad that Rowling addressed it in her book. I’m hoping that it can show people without the disorder just how debilitating it can be, and that people with the disorder are not alone.
Despite all my initial misgivings, I was sad when The Casual Vacancy ended. I wanted to know more about the people of Pagford, not because I was dissatisfied with the ending, but because they had become such an important part of my life. Although there can never be another Harry Potter series, this book is good enough to stand on its own. It’s a book Rowling is proud of and a book I think she should be proud of. She showed everyone, including me, that there was a whole other side to her than the one she’d shown us for all these years.