By Ivo Dimitrov
What do you do if you are among the world’s best-selling authors? In J. K. Rowling’s case, you follow up your immensely popular bestsellers with a book in a directly opposite approach. Gone are the wizards in her latest novel, only to be replaced by local politics and small-town life in ‘The Casual Vacancy’.
The novel tells the story of a seemingly peaceful English town called Pagford, where all is well until the sudden death of a councilman. The resulting local council election soon affects many of Pagford’s inhabitants. By constantly shifting the point of view, Rowling describes broken families and desperate teenagers, narcissistic individuals and clashing social classes, as the fight over the election escalates further and further.
‘The Casual Vacancy’ is surprisingly grim and pessimistic in its look on contemporary English society. No one is a hero, as every single character’s existence is rooted in an obsession with their own daily life. This self-centered look and the lack of mutual understanding ultimately lead to the question: To what extent are we responsible for our own lives and for each other? In highlighting this, the novel does not shy away from addressing explicit social issues, such as racism, rape, abuse and suicide. This might sound shocking coming from the woman who gave us Quidditch and Butterbeer, but Rowling’s work has always had a strong undertone of social injustice; this merely intensifies here. Combine this dark nature with tight plotting, complex characterization and memorable descriptions and you get an engaging and touching read. It is an ambitious work that shows an author aware of her strengths but willing to venture into new territories. In the end, Harry Potter fans need not fear: Rowling has not lost her magic touch – she has merely grown.