The Harry Potter series was such a cultural juggernaut that many people who would not normally have read children’s novels about a training school for wizards felt compelled to point out that the books lacked literary merit. Reviewing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for National Review in 2005, Ross Douthat defended its author, J. K. Rowling, against such criticism by arguing that “there’s more to writing than felicitous prose or perfect psychological realism.” Rowling’s detractors missed what made the Potter books so captivating: the story.
Five years after the final installment in the Harry Potter series was released, Little, Brown has published Rowling’s first novel aimed at adults, The Casual Vacancy. She was clearly determined to try her hand at something completely different, and she succeeded, in a way: Instead of a magical world and an enthralling tale, she has given us a boring, self-serious plot and a cast of two-dimensional, unlikeable characters. The prose, however, is as infelicitous as ever.
The story begins with a death. Barry Fairbrother, a member of the parish council of the picturesque village of Pagford, has been fighting attempts by his less-enlightened neighbors to sever ties with a neighboring jurisdiction known as the Fields, whose welfare-dependent residents Pagford grudgingly subsidizes. His passing creates the eponymous “casual vacancy” — a term Rowling came across while flipping through the Local Council Administration handbook — and the plot turns on the resulting election and the various ways the citizens of Pagford react to Barry’s death. Most of them react implausibly.
Barry’s widow, Mary, cannot forgive him for having spent his last day on earth crafting an op-ed for the local paper championing his cause. She alternates between soft weeping and hysterics for the duration of the book (“Fury erupted . . . she began to scream and cry at once . . . ‘The Fields, the bloody, bloody Fields . . . ’”).
Howard Mollison, the morbidly obese proprietor of the local gourmet deli and leader of the council’s anti-Fields faction, can barely contain his glee at the sudden death of his foe. His wife, Shirley, likewise feels “delight frothing and fizzing inside” her when she hears the news. For good measure, Howard and Shirley are bigots — they nickname their Punjabi neighbor “Bends-Your-Ear Bhutto.”
There are many more players in this drama — a nurse, a social worker, teachers, lawyers, a heroin addict, a desperate housewife, and their angsty teenagers — and Rowling introduces the reader to them all in turn. One hundred and fifty pages in, we finally get to attend Barry Fairbrother’s funeral. Three hundred and fifty pages after that — spoiler alert — there is another funeral. Not much happens in between.
In an interview with Ian Parker for The New Yorker, Rowling revealed that she considers the book “more of a comic tragedy” than a “black comedy.” Actually it is neither. What humor it contains is unintentional. For instance: “He retained a vivid memory of her bare pink vulva; it was as though Father Christmas had popped up in their midst.” And another, perhaps more puzzling, image: “She thought of sex with Miles. . . . His performance was as predictable as a Masonic handshake.” Rowling’s non-sexual similes are similarly confounding: “Through all Tessa’s anxiety and sorrow was threaded the usual worry, like an itchy little worm.”
In her striving for verisimilitude, Rowling has made a point of including the sort of modern technology and pop-culture references that were conspicuously absent from the Potter books. The teenagers text and check each other’s Facebooks and sing Rihanna songs. Unfortunately, Rowling often gets these things wrong. One character repeatedly removes bullying messages posted on her Facebook page from an anonymous sender. But any teenager would surely know how to adjust her privacy settings to prevent an unknown person from posting on her wall. One of the odder plot twists has a mother salivating over her 16-year-old daughter’s DVD of her favorite boy band. Both DVDs and boy bands are passé. And a teenager who lives in public housing in the Fields remains silent in discussions about the latest TV shows because she is too poor to own a television. This poignant detail rings untrue.
Pagford feels like a puppet theater, with Rowling keeping a controlling hand on her marionettes as they act out their wooden roles in her morality play. The lesson she wants to teach is that responsibility for your neighbors is best expressed through government. One character at the end of the book feels “a desire to be absorbed in something bigger than herself . . . (this is how people go religious, she thought, trying to laugh herself out of it).” So she joins the local council. Incidentally, religion does not figure in the story, save for one shrewish gossip who wears a cross, a self-satisfied vicar who presides at the funerals, and a nominally Sikh family. Rowling’s preferred solution to pain and emptiness is apparently therapy, as both her suicidal teen and her nihilist teen seek counseling at the novel’s close.
Rowling told The New Yorker that she had been eager for a genre change because “I had a lot of real-world material in me.” But her stillborn attempt at realism brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s observation that “the writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.” The modern-day England of Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is much less real than the fantasy world that Harry Potter inhabited.
— Katherine Connell is an editorial associate at National Review.