Like many others, I imagine, I read The Casual Vacancy because it was Rowling’s foray into adult literature, her first piece after the Potter saga.
It was a good read. It’s been a while since I’ve read the Potter books, so it’s hard to compare them in terms of writing. The Casual Vacancy does well at evoking a particular setting, and at telling a complex story from a dozen different angles. There are some areas I was less sure of; but overall it was a well put together piece.
The setting is important in The Casual Vacancy. It’s essentially, in some form, a story about a place, and a particular kind of place – a small, English village. I’ve never spent more than a few days in one, so it’s hard for me to know how much is stereotype and how much truth, but it certainly felt real in that regard. It’s about the conflict and change and turmoil within that place, as part of the character of the town.
And it’s this second part where I think the novel is exceptional. It tells the story from a dozen different angles, and there are several things here that Rowling does impressively. She moves between the viewpoint of different characters in a way that feels natural, but somehow genuinely gives a different angle each time. So that we may see different perspectives on the same incident or encounter, and each can feel authentic because they’re seen through the prism of a particular character’s concerns, fears, and hopes. At the same time she manages to make the characters relatable – those that would be likeable in real life, are reasonably likeable, and those that are shits, are still sympathetic simply because we are hearing their story (more on this in a moment). While doing this, Rowling manages to keep the narrative flowing smoothly, giving us enough information but not overdoing it.
I mention the issue of viewpoint because I think it’s an interesting one. Booth argues that seeing through a particular point of view makes us sympathetic to that character, even if their views or decisions are fundamentally bad or stupid. There’s one particular character in the novel – Gavin- who I think of as a … a poor human being, poor at communicating effectively, and at making good decisions. But she manages to make the reader’s sympathy flicker even to him and his shortcomings.
A final issue that I was less certain of how was Rowling tells the story of Krystal, a young girl struggling with a few different challenges. I say this because Krystal in the story is very clearly the poor person, living on the wrong side of the tracks. I don’t have enough first-hand knowledge to know if this was a fair portrayal, or a reasonable story, for someone like Krystal. I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on that.
So, overall, it’s well-written, and if you enjoy complex narrative and British towns, worth a look (although it is not Middlemarch). It’s not a surprise I suppose that it’s being turned into a TV show – the trailer’s up on online.