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Review: ‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling

Author J.K. Rowling has written her first book targeted for adult readers. | Ben Pruchnie~Getty Images

Author J.K. Rowling has written her first book targeted for adult readers. | Ben Pruchnie~Getty Images

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Updated: November 8, 2012 11:41AM

There’s a tendency among reviewers, and no doubt many readers, to think of “The Casual Vacancy,” J.K. Rowling’s first “adult” novel, as a radical departure from the global phenomenon that was Harry Potter. There is some justice in this. The quality that distinguished the world of Hogwarts and its supernaturally gifted inhabitants — magic, the ability to transform everyday reality into something fantastic with a muttered spell or the flick of a wand — is nowhere in Pagford, the quaint and oh-so-fractious English village that is the setting of the new book.

But the distance from Hogwarts to Pagford — whose residents form into opposing camps in the aftermath of the death of a member of the local parish council — is shorter than Potter fans might have expected. To suggest that Pagford is simply the world of the Potter tales stripped of their magical scaffolding would go a half-step too far, as the hard-core fantasy readers who used to show up at midnight book-release parties with their broomsticks and owls will attest. Certainly Rowling has decided, for now at least, to put away such devices in an attempt to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be.

Still, that’s just what the hocus-pocus of the Potter books always was: a device. It was always a kind of Halloween party, in which the real world showed up in robes and funny hats (sometimes the hats would even talk), but with essentially regular, recognizable people — with their love affairs and petty feuds, their shouting and scheming, their big-heartedness and small-mindedness, their allegiances and divisions — just underneath.

True, there are tonal differences. If the Potter books owe much of their heightened sense of melodrama and satirical comedy to the tales of Charles Dickens, “The Casual Vacancy” (Little, Brown, $35) is closer in spirit and outlook to the more realistic Barchester novels of Dickens’ contemporary Anthony Trollope. Rowling is franker in the new book about certain matters, including domestic violence and sex. But those matters were always percolating just beneath the surface of the Potter books, and sometimes they pushed into more or less open view. (Pop quiz, Potter fans: What was at the root of Ron Weasley’s jealousy of Harry throughout much of the story? Who killed Sirius Black, and what was their connection?) And by halfway through the Potter series, nearly everyone agrees that Rowling had slipped free of the relatively innocent phase of the saga and was now firmly in “adult” territory; the last two books were as dark, grim and anguished as anything in “The Casual Vacancy.”

Some reviewers have allowed that the nastier, more provincial characters in the new book resemble the Dursleys, Harry’s Muggle caretakers. This is true — the fat, mean-spirited Howard Mollison, leader of the camp that wants to disassociate Pagford from a nearby low-income housing project, is an obvious cousin of Vernon Dursley — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Hogwarts, if memory serves, was increasingly invaded by Ministry of Magic martinets, most notably Professor Dolores Jane Umbridge, who resembles any number of the picture-perfect Pagford snobs who can’t bear to think of, well, poor people in their midst.

In fact, the central conflict in “The Casual Vacancy” is essentially one of class, in which the haves (or wanna-haves) pit themselves against the have-nots-and-never-will — a theme that simmers throughout the Potter books, erupting like Old Faithful in the person of Draco Malfoy. And is the liberal-vs.-conservative breakdown of “The Casual Vacancy” different, in any profound or even material way, from the good-vs.-evil binary of the Potter universe? Not really. It’s simply the way Rowling — now one of the richest women on the planet but once a struggling single mom with little, if anything, in her bank account — views the world.

And it’s the same world — just a plainer, less fanciful corner of it — that she shows us in the new book. In something like the offstage deaths of Harry’s parents, “The Casual Vacancy” begins with a death of a beloved figure: parish councilman Barry Fairbrother, who leaves behind a village divided in an ongoing struggle to fill the vacancy — hence the book’s title — with someone who will either support or oppose the rezoning of the Fields, as the housing project is known. (If this sounds a bit like Harry & Co. vs. the once and future Death Eaters, you may be onto something.) Along the way, the various characters — a second-string schoolmaster, Colin, and his adoptive teenage son Fats, who’s a bit like Ron Weasley without Ron’s cluelessness about his own erotic needs; Miles, caught between his connection to Barry (former business partner) and Howard (blood relation); and Kay, a social worker who shuttles between the two camps, conveying news in both directions — form and re-form in our eyes. Just as in the Potter series, sometimes the good guys prove to have feet of clay; other times, villains prove themselves capable of confounding our expectations.

In short, if Potter lovers can get past the absence of obvious magic in “The Casual Vacancy,” they’ll find themselves in surprisingly familiar territory in which, perhaps, a subtler form of magic, this of the literary variety, is being practiced. All along, they may realize, we were living not in Harry’s world but in Rowling’s, which turns out to have been bit roomier than we knew.

Kevin Nance is a local freelance writer.

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