The setting of J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, the fictional town of Pagford, England, is a reasonable display of her deftness at creating a world to inhabit. Of course, in the Harry Potter series, Rowling has 7 increasingly lengthy books in which to build the wizarding world. In The Casual Vacancy she is resigned to only about 500 pages. Yet, she manages to construct a history, a house of cards of local politics and players, and an intertwining mix of school children and social classes and lives that begin to shuffle after the death of local councilman Barry Fairbrother.
Fairbrother’s death leaves the titular casual vacancy on the council, and the reader gets to learn about the existing members – some who were Fairbrother’s colleagues, others who were his opposition – and about those clamoring to fill the spot (for reasons noble, financial, familial, and questionable). And we learn, too, about some key players in the Fields, the town’s “poor” section that is the root of the major council disturbances. Then, we watch the drama play out, as the interweaved lives come together to shift the community in ways no individual member could see coming.
Ultimately, skilled though Rowling is at the world-building, The Casual Vacancy suffers from being a little too bland and a little too familiar. The drama may resonate beyond the borders of Pagford, but revealing the petty squabbles in seemingly idyllic communities isn’t exactly new territory. While some characters’ stories seem worth the journey, there are others who feel less like real people and more like puzzle pieces Rowling created to help guide her story to its conclusion.
It isn’t that The Casual Vacancy is bad – it’s too well-written to be bad. But it just isn’t awfully intriguing. And coming from the author of Harry Potter, it’s going to be hard to sell something that doesn’t have the capacity to shock or surprise or awe. And if teaching moral or political lessons is Rowling’s aim…well, that too was better achieved through her more famous work.