It’s pretty much impossible for me to not compare The Casual Vacancy to Harry Potter. When you love a series as much as I loved Harry Potter, there is a lot riding on the author’s first outing after it’s done (KA Applegate, author of the YA series Animorphs, didn’t fare so well with Remnants). And you have to institute quite a severe media blackout, too, because the rest of the world is just itching to jump on it - either to lavish undeserved, loyal praise, or to gleefully behead the Tall Poppy.
So, here it is. It’s no Harry Potter. I doubt it’ll earn anywhere near the reputation those books did. But it was pretty damn good all the same.
Rowling does seem to understand the worlds of these people very well - one of the characters, Fats, is forever chasing “authenticity” in his actions, and this rings true of Rowling as well. She has, as she’s pointed out in interviews, known people like these characters, and it shows.
I grew up in a small, country town, and I can tell you from observing the parents in their various roles as basketball attachés and general school busybodies, that Rowling has nailed them in The Casual Vacancy - reading along, I was powerfully reminded of several people from my hometown. This notion for some of the characters that the small town of Pagford is “the epicentre of the universe” is something that strikes me as very authentic - I couldn’t tell you how much eye-rolling is done at some of the people who act as though their small-town squabbles, their petty victories and shames, register on a cosmic level.
Rowling also has an oddly keen insight into the mind of the teenage boy. The thought processes around adolescent crushes are well-rendered, though I suppose relatively well-trodden in pop culture, but what struck me was the conflict between the teenagers and their parents - especially the boys and their fathers. That struck very close to home - I’ve been in those trenches and Rowling brought those days back to life much more vividly than I’ve seen anyone else do.
It is, of course, quite a melodramatic novel. There isn’t the subtlety you’d hope for, from a writer of her experience - but I don’t think this really detracted too much. It’s intended to engage you emotionally, and it does just that.
This isn’t to say the book was perfect. I know Rowling wanted complete control over this - even the ability to fail, if that were to happen - but I can’t help but feel that a little more editorial control mightn’t have gone astray. There were several sentences so awkward they made me cringe - mostly simple pronoun confusion that was resolved with things like “…said to her, Cath, that…” instead of simply recasting. She has also developed an annoying habit of putting large sections of text - many paragraphs long, in some cases - in brackets. This was simply unnecessary, since giving some backstory for a few paragraphs in the middle of a scene can be done seamlessly without them, and the inclusion of the brackets really drew me out of the action.
But, in the end, I very much enjoyed the book. There’s a real feeling of worry that you’ll be let down when one of your favourite authors brings out a new novel - but I was very pleased, and look forward to whatever Rowling does next.