The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowlings
As I began to read this book, I found myself searching for the author of Harry Potter. When I finally resorted to a crib list to keep track of the multitude of characters, I missed the accessible writer who has led millions of children to enjoy reading with her easily-followed plots. And as I encountered a cast of unlikeable people, I missed the sympathetic, easy-to-like Harry, Ron and Hermione. Is J.K. Rowling really a mean-spirited woman who can tell us nothing but nasty secrets about her cast of characters assembled in a seemingly idyllic English village with the Black Cannon Pub and the ancient church grouped around the village square? Is she on a vendetta to destroy a stereotype? Is she tired of being nice? Is this the real her?
Nevertheless, I kept reading because Rowling is a master storyteller and a skillful writer. And gradually I discovered the familiar author.
She is there with the children in the village, much more compelling characters than the adults. She is saying that without magic, this could have been the life of the orphaned Harry Potter. She is saying that in real life, if children are not adequately loved and nurtured, challenged and supported, they can get into big trouble. She is saying that children can be horrible to each other, but they can also be a support and provide personal growth.
As the plot grew ever more sprawling and the many characters grew ever more complex, I began to wonder how Rawlings was ever going to bring her tale to a conclusion. And then I discovered the author of Harry Potter again. Except that the exciting nail-biters which ended the children's books sounded melodramatic in this book for adults. Not that I don't like melodrama. I was on the edge of my chair as I read the concluding chapters of this book. Once again, the concluding events in the plot surrounding the children rang true. Their paths were leading to disaster, and it would take a momentous event to be a wake-up call to the adults who were to blame in avoiding serious issues with their children. But the rip-roaring drunk of a party with all proprieties broken, while fun to read, was too obviously a wrap-up event for the miscellaneous sub-plots from which Rowlings needed to extricate herself.
The adults are not entirely unsympathetic. Rowlings cleverly ties the adult and child plots together at the end when several of the adult characters pass by little Robbie who is lost, dirty and crying. Lest anyone doubt the theme of the book, it is here with these self-absorbed adults ignoring the needs of the child and refusing to acknowledge that all children are their responsibility. But guilt and compunction do visit these adults after Robbie's death and we hope that the village will be a kinder, less self-satisfied place after the horrifying ending of the book.
Read this book. You will enjoy it, and you will find yourself thinking about its theme long after you are finished. But it takes some persistence to get into it and some sang-froid to follow the affairs of the variously unlikeable adults who people its pages.