J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” is short on magic

Harry Potter author’s new novel for adults pleases critics, fails to charm readers

Valerie Ettenhofer
Staff Writer 

Here’s a warning to bookish twenty-something’s who may pick up J.K. Rowling’s first post-Potter endeavor in an attempt to seek the nostalgia and innocence of an earlier time: we aren’t at Hogwarts anymore. Of course, the beloved children’s author made that clear from the start, promoting The Casual Vacancy, a 500-page exploration of small-town politics, as a distinctly adult novel. Still, fans of her former series are bound to seek out parallels and expect much from this invariably different story.

And boy, did audiences expect. The Casual Vacancy, which centers on the aftermath of a councilman’s death and the agendas of various townspeople, currently wavers between one-star and five-star reviews on Amazon.com. Heralded by critics as a compelling political satire, the book still managed to sell 375,000 copies in its first week.

So what is keeping audiences from connecting with this story, which displays Rowling’s keen ability to craft phrases from the very first page? It may be the pacing. Tangled webs of characters are introduced at a leisurely pace each through the same lens of grief or glee at the death of their fellow citizen.

Another talking point that could dissuade readers is Rowling’s use of vulgarity without elegance. While her character descriptions and background information remain as vivid as ever, early forays into sex and violence seem calculated and off-putting, lacking the spark that inevitably lights up surrounding passages.

When taking into consideration recent phenomenon in the literary world, pacing and profanity are of little interest in determining a reader’s interest. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo mused about the structure of the Swedish media for much of the first third of the book, yet it remains one of the top-selling adult novels of all time. Furthermore, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series disproves any idea of explicitness as a detractor for potential readers.

If one must guess why both loyal and first-time readers of the esteemed author are displeased by The Casual Vacancy, it would have something to do with magic. No, it’s not the literal magic of Jo’s most lucrative project that’s missing, but a literary magic that seems to transcend description. The fictional town of Pagford is plagued with a cast of dark characters who do nothing to alleviate readers’ weariness about our own current political state. This time around, the themes are bleak, the players are dismal, and the game isn’t so fun.