Having never cracked the cover of a Harry Potter novel, I opened The Casual Vacancy with no preconceived notions about J. K. Rowling’s writing. The book, at just over 500 pages, seemed satisfyingly hefty for leisure reading, and small-town England is a topic to which I’m easily drawn. The story centers on the various rivalries that surface after the “casual vacancy” caused by the sudden death of one of the town leaders, and the social satire is pleasantly biting without being vicious. The cast of characters, however, makes getting through to the ironies an arduous task.
Rowling writes engaging dialogue, and she knows how to render different voices and accents believably. She also presents an attractively diverse cast of characters, from neglected toddlers to pimply teenagers to massively overweight, pampered adults. She seems, however, to have picked up a couple of bad habits from Hilary Mantel. First, one of the characters refers to the Indian doctor, Parminder Jawanda, as “Bends-Your-Ear,” and, second, Rowling feels the need now and then to clarify pronouns by adding the proper name after it. Happily, she indulges in neither of these habits as often as Mantel and most Americans will likely enjoy listening to the conversations in the novel.
Both dialogue and narration tend to be literal and fast-paced. Rowling does not linger too long on metaphors or other figures of speech, which is somewhat surprising in a novel of this length. When metaphors do occur, they’re usually quite good, as when Krystal Weedon thinks of her past as “her pre-life, which was doused in blood, fury, and darkness.” They don’t appear often, however, so readers who seek a dense, poetic prose should look elsewhere.
Despite the page by page speed this literal diction creates, the book moves slowly along, primarily because of the number of characters. This is the real problem with The Casual Vacancy: remembering who knows/is married to/goes to school with whom. The character who really stands out is the teenager Krystal Weedon, whose tragedy takes over the more quotidian problems over which the other characters obsess, and the novel might more profitably have made the political squabbling occur among a smaller number of characters. Each conflict is interesting and revealing, in and of itself, but there are simply too many to keep straight.
If you have the time to devote to sorting out what seem like dozens of characters and want to immerse yourself in a long satire on small-town life, then The Casual Vacancy is for you. Be warned: don’t lay it aside for too long or you will forget what is happening to whom. You will likely also lose track of who is related to whom. If, however, you want to wade into this backbiting, bickering world, you will emerge with enough information about current affairs in England to last you at least until the BBC film is released.