When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997, the world of magic, Dumbledore, lightning-shaped scars and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was born. Suddenly, every kid dreamed of getting a letter from Hogwarts on his 11th birthday instead of a bike. Reaching the final page of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a horrible reality; our time at Hogwarts was done. The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter novel, was worth the read for me just to experience another story from the mind of the creator of Harry Potter.
The Casual Vacancy tells the story of the town of Pagford after the seemingly insignificant death of town councilman Barry Fairbrother. Fairbrother was one of the few councilmembers who fought for the town’s continued support of the Fields, a lower-class housing development that had been assigned to Pagford to support. Barry’s main opponent in his attempts to support the Fields was Howard Mollison, a local entrepreneur and fellow councilman who resents that Pagfordians must waste their hard-earned money on the “ambitionless” and “hopeless” residents of the Fields.
Rowling shows the reader the widespread aftershocks of Barry’s death through continued snapshots of the lives of the citizens of Pagford and the Fields. Krystal Weedon is one of the most striking of these characters. Krystal is a resident of the Fields whom Councilman Mollison strongly dislikes, not only because of where she comes from but because she is a bully to his granddaughter. But Rowling doesn’t let us pass judgment lightly, exposing Krystal’s fractured home life and her mother’s multiple failed attempts at heroin rehabilitation as motivation for her actions. Krystal’s best and only hope at a better life was the now-deceased Fairbrother, whose rowing team gave Krystal’s life a direction it had always lacked.
Krystal’s classmate Fats Wall is one of the darkest characters Rowling creates in this study of complicated characters. Fats embodies the general selfishness and nastiness of human nature that Rowling emphasizes repeatedly throughout the novel. He lives by his own standard of morality, that “the difficult thing, the glorious thing, [is] to be who you really [are], even if that person [is] cruel or dangerous.” Fats acts on his impulses and desires, and many of his decisions hurt those he cares about the most — his best friend and his pseudo-girlfriend. Though Fats’ mistakes seem egregious, they are actually easily comparable to those of other of Rowling’s characters. While some of them may claim to follow more traditional moral standards, they simply try harder to hide their motives as wives plot against husbands, children plot against parents and friends plot against friends.
J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults is captivating and addicting from beginning to end. Those looking for another Harry Potter won’t find it, but fans of Rowling’s storytelling will not be disappointed. Overall, The Casual Vacancy relays a grim and heartbreaking picture of human tendencies that will leave you unsettled, but the honesty and relatability of its characters make it a must-read.