If I was only given one thing to say about ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ it’d be this: “Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t.” If that seems mixed up, convoluted, and indiscernible, then I have succeeded in describing my feelings about the book. Two days after finishing it and vowing to write a review, I’m still sitting here sort of at a loss on how to start this thing and explain exactly how it made me feel. But I think the best way is probably to go back to Rowling’s opus and describe the reasons why I think her writing style succeeded so very, very well in a work like Harry Potter. In this way, maybe I can figure out just what about her newest book I liked – and just why I think it ultimately fails to live up to the hype.
I could write theses on Harry Potter, and I am sure that that very thing has been done. But for your sake, readers, I’ll try to keep this brief. Rowling succeeded with her debut series for (more or less) three reasons: she is ridiculous at world-building, she is one of the best character writers I have ever read, and the genre of fantasy lends itself to these two attributes. Anyone who has read Harry Potter will tell you that, while you are reading the books, you feel like you’re in the world. Rowling’s world-building feels complete. She spends loads of time providing details whose sole purpose is to capture your imagination and create the sense that you could travel to England and visit Platform 9 ¾ , or roam around the English countryside until you found Hogwarts (I know, I know, it’s hidden by spells… but you get my point). The problem, as I have said in a previous piece about Neal Stephenson, is that when these expert world-builders apply their skill to the real world, the result is a book that tells me too much about stuff that I’m already too familiar with. In ‘The Casual Vacancy’ this problem, coupled with Rowling’s definitive writing style, leads to prose that feels too “flowery” (to quote my wife). It is as if Rowling tried to take the same approach to this novel that she took to the Harry Potter series, not realizing that what works for a children’s fantasy series will not necessarily work for an adult book about the suckiness of everyday people.
One thing that does work, though, is Rowling’s ability to write believable and relatable characters. Let me tell you something: I did not like the thematic elements of this novel. I didn’t like the arc of the story (SPOILER: absolutely nothing good happens in this story. It’s literally shit happens, shit happens, shit happens, the end. Which I found somehow lazy and lacking). And I didn’t like the writing style, for the most part. But I kept reading because of the characters. That’s how Rowling hooks you. Do you remember rooting for Harry, Ron, and Hermione? Do you remember being distraught when Dumbledore died? If so, then you know the power that Rowling has in getting you to buy into and root for certain characters. That quality of her writing is not lost in ‘The Casual Vacancy.’ You will find yourself reading on to find out what happens to characters you both genuinely care about and genuinely despise long after the story itself has lost you.
Even with the character development being as good as it is, it isn’t enough to outweigh the fact that the whole thing just feels like Rowling picked the wrong genre. When I originally started the novel, I hadn’t done a lot of research on exactly what kind of book it was. The cover seemed very noir-esque to me, and so I went into this thing thinking that it would end up being some kind of mystery. I liked that idea, because a mystery story would be a way for Rowling to showcase some of the things that made Harry Potter great (think Prisoner of Azkaban, and you’ll see that she can write a killer mystery) while still allowing Rowling to write a book with adult themes and a real-world setting. But it isn’t a mystery. It’s a straightforward novel about the politics of small-town life. If that sounds boring to you, you are not alone. Almost from the very first page, I was uninterested and unconcerned with the plot itself. Of course, the characters made me read on and sit on the edge of my seat regarding the next plot development, yada yada yada. But I didn’t care about the story all that much. Which is not good.
So I’m left with that weird one-liner from the opening paragraph: Harry Potter it ain’t. But it kinda is. But it ain’t. Because it seems like Rowling approached this book the same way she approached her first series, and the story of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ doesn’t lend itself to that approach. I understand that she wants to break free of children’s books and write stuff for adults (her original fans are almost all adults now, anyway). But please, Rowling, pick a genre that is suited to your strong suits as a writer. This one, as far as I’m concerned, missed the mark.