When the wealthiest author in the world, the author of a series of books that sold over 400,000,000 copies, a series of books that spurned the most successful film franchise of all time, releases her first out-of-franchise followup, it is expectedly a big deal.
It is unexpected that that followup is an idle political novel about a pastoral English village. No one could have predicted The Casual Vacancy. It’s true that we didn’t know really what to expect, but at the least I and others probably thought her next book would land to similar praise and adoration as her others. As I read through it, I constantly was waiting for something big to happen. My expectation of a “Rowling” novel was bent by the fantastic adventures of Harry and friends. Unfortunately I could not appreciate Vacancy for the earth-bounded story it is. I found myself guilty of the thing I’ve poked fun at so often. As so many have lambasted Apple for not delivering earth-shattering revolutionary products at every single event, I was heartbreakingly disappointed with Rowling for not delivering another smash hit.
Stylistically, Vacancy is exquisite. I mustn’t have realized it, as I grew up alongside the Harry Potter novels, reading each of them in turn as they came out, but Rowling’s writing has really matured. Comparing Vacancy to Philosopher’s Stone, the quality of the writing has gone from great to lust-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of my favorite novels, and the writing is great. Vacancy is just that much better.
To use a specific example, this was my first encounter with extended parentheticals, and I love them. Syntactically, they are super effective delineating a passage (often a long passage) that breaks from the set narrative. Whether it be a flashback, an extended description, or other diatribe, it is made clear that this little bit (right here) is separated. Of course they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t placed with the utmost care. J.K.’s shows an amazing aptitude for placing them exactly where they ought to be, providing clarifications and deviations at exactly the times they are needed and never when they would disrupt any of the import, climactic business going on. I could continue attempting to explain exactly why they’re so delightful, but honestly it would be much easier if you read the book and discovered for yourself.
In this novel, for the first time in her writing career, Rowling experiments with out-of-sequence, Pulp Fiction-y storytelling. Throughout the first part of the novel, the point-of-view shifts between different characters and different moments in the timeline of their lives. As we’ve come to expect from Rowling, the backstories are richly detailed. Often tidbits from their background are revealed through those extended parentheticals. The impression given is that Rowling has spent many months in the village of Pagford researching all of the intricate details of every single one of her invented characters. She must have volumes of notes in equivalent detail to those she created for the Harry Potter universe, but with every detail of Pagford jotted.
(I like to imagine that the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike series all take place on the same alternate Earth. Actually, I prefer to imagine that it isn’t an alternate Earth at all.)
Fortunately since I read it I’ve had many months1 to reflect. Over time my opinion of it has grown fonder, and my disappointment has waned. The Casual Vacancy is a read not meant to keep you up into the wee hours turning pages. The characters aren’t remarkable. They are human. Humans are boring. They are relatable. Muggles. When you can accept all of that, it’s a lot easier to praise its delights.
I was initially disappointed but this novel isn’t disappointing. It can be difficult to accept that your favorite fantasy author isn’t actually a “fantasy author”, but it’s a good thing. Limiting J.K. Rowling’s talents to one genre wouldn’t be any fun at all. The Casual Vacancy is a superb example of the kind of novel I wouldn’t usually read.
A detective novel, though… that’s something I could get into.