IT’S NOT HARRY POTTER—let’s just get that out of the way first. The Casual Vacancy is so different from J.K. Rowling’s mega-selling children’s book series that one wonders if Rowling deliberately tried to make her first novel for adults conform as little as possible to her readers’ expectations. For starters, she couldn’t have chosen a less promising subject. Most American readers have no idea what a “casual vacancy” is. Finding out—it’s what happens when a council member dies in office—doesn’t make the novel sound any more appealing. It’s a long journey from Hogwarts to the village council chamber.
But Rowling is such a good storyteller that she could rewrite the telephone book and make it readable, and that’s essentially what she does here. Weighing in at five hundred pages, The Casual Vacancy is a loose, baggy novel with too many characters, and it spends far too much time bouncing among them, leaving the reader confused about who exactly matters here and why. But once a central narrative starts to emerge, the result is penetrating and pleasantly acerbic. If the central themes in the Harry Potter series were necessarily broad-brush—namely, the struggle between good and evil—The Casual Vacancy feels more like a mosaic: a lot of little pieces, some better formed than others, that ultimately come together into something like a coherent, if depressing, whole.
Set in the fictional village of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy at first seems to have all the trappings of the adorable-English-town novel—an updating of Jane Austen viewed through the loving lens of a Merchant Ivory production. But the book’s misanthropy is more indebted to Hardy or Somerset Maugham, both known for their deep distrust of humankind and their sense of the viciousness that can spring up among neighbors. The only thing that’s cute about Pagford are the window boxes, and even those, “planted in mutually agreed colors every year,” show how deeply the vein of conformity runs. Not a single character is thoroughly likable, not even the children. The few who start off sympathetic, like the Sikh physician on the town council who advocates for the less fortunate, will eventually reveal a darker side. Meanwhile, the mean ones either become meaner or take a turn into pitiable—like the middle-aged mother whose obsession with a boy band leads her to make a pass at a teenager.
The “casual vacancy” results from the sudden death of the well-liked Barry Fairbrother, who turns out to have a far less benign impact on his friends and neighbors in death than he did in life. The most obvious hole his death leaves is his seat on the town council, which has been in the midst of a protracted battle between those who hope to retain the town’s responsibility for a depressed housing development on its outskirts called the Fields, and those who would redraw the boundaries to exclude the area. Barry was on the side of the angels—a minority position, naturally. Those lobbying against the Fields—including Howard Mollison, Pagford’s de facto mayor, and his lawyer son—seek to exploit Barry’s death for their own political gain.
The action of the novel unfolds over a period of a month or so, from Barry’s death—dispatched with in a prologue of just a few pages—through the election and its immediate aftermath. Like a mosquito, the book sucks its lifeblood from the petty intrigues of the town’s population—some pettier than others. It’s hard to imagine a less edifying clan than the Mollisons: the obese and grasping Howard, his equally conniving wife and daughter-in-law, his ineffectual son. Simon Price, one of the would-be candidates for Barry’s seat, viciously abuses his wife and children. The son of a hapless high school administrator (another candidate) bullies the physician’s daughter, calling her a hermaphrodite for the faint mustache she has sprouted in puberty. Krystal Weedon, the daughter of a family from the Fields, at home valiantly tries to protect her three-year-old brother from their junkie mother, but at school she is brash and violent, swearing at teachers and punching out classmates. The most appealing character, a social worker who genuinely seeks to help the Weedons, is presented most often via the unflattering perspective of her boyfriend, who is trying to wriggle out of their relationship.
Locked in their cycle of barely suppressed rage, these people might have continued sniping at each other forever. But, desperate to keep his father off the council, Simon’s son takes a dramatic step: he hacks the council’s website and posts a vitriolic message. Others soon follow suit, so that the website becomes a kind of mouthpiece for the town’s id, speaking the truths no one dares to voice in real life. Despite what their subjects believe, most of the secrets exposed aren’t the work of some vicious conspiracy, but rather random bits of gossip divulged by accident. It takes very little, Rowling suggests, to breach the protective wrappings we draw around ourselves.
Despite its length, The Casual Vacancy takes place on a smaller scale than Rowling has demonstrated herself capable of. We get to know a handful of characters intimately, but beyond that her ambition is smaller than it was in the Harry Potter novels, and the sweeping imagination that animates those books is almost entirely absent. Much of the pleasure of that series is in watching Rowling flesh out every aspect of the wizarding world in elaborate detail: Hogwarts, complete with all its history, traditions, and curriculum; the fortress-like Ministry of Magic; even St. Mungo’s Hospital, with departments devoted to everything from dragon bites to curses gone wrong.
What makes all this work so well is that the magical world exists in perfect parallel to our known reality, expanding upon it and illuminating it. Harry is a wizard, but he’s also a kid who goes through the same coming-of-age process as every other child, learning to make sense of the world and to figure out his own place in it. If Harry has a little piece of Voldemort inside him, so do we all—a tendency toward evil that we must learn to overcome. But Harry’s battle is rigged. We know that justice will ultimately prevail, as it does in virtually all children’s books. And that might be the most fantastical element of all—the idea that people almost always get what they deserve.
If justice in some ways triumphs in Pagford, too, it’s only because its inhabitants learn that their past crimes are guaranteed to come back and bite them in the ass. This vision of cosmic karma is very different from what Harry and Co. experience, and ultimately it’s much smaller. More than the chronicle of a wizard’s education or a heroic quest-epic, the Harry Potter series is the story of Harry’s growing up—his transformation from an orphaned and lonely child to an individual who understands his own capabilities and deficiencies and has made peace with his losses. But in Pagford no one grows or changes, except through death. And thus the implications of this far less cheery morality tale are darker than anything to be found in the prison of Azkaban. If J.K. Rowling, with her prodigious talents and great good fortune, is this pessimistic about the human condition, we must be even worse off than we knew.
Ruth Franklin is a contributing editor at The New Republic. She is currently a fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.