So I’ve read it. And what did I think? Well, to start with the obvious: It’s not Harry Potter. And while it is not Harry Potter in all the obvious ways, it is also not Harry Potter in a more fundamental, affecting-how-I-feel-about-it way. Let me try to explain:
The Casual Vacancy, as most people will have gathered, is a realistic novel. It is set in Pagford, a smallish town somewhere in England. The novel stars off with a member of the local council unexpectedly dying, which sets off a series of events mostly related to his now vacant seat on the council and the question of local politics. However, though certain aspects of local politics are very central to the story, it is not a book about politics as such, it is more about fairly ordinary people, the lives they actually live and the fronts they try to keep up – the lies they tell themselves or others to maintain the facade.
I had gathered before I started to read that there were a lot of characters to keep track of. Being terrible at names I was bracing myself to make an effort in order to make any sense of it all. However, once I did start reading I found it was not at all hard to keep track. Firstly, the number of characters to keep track of is not that high. Ok, there are rather a lot more “main” characters than in Harry Potter (where there is basically ONE), but when I got to the point where it was obvious everyone important had now been introduced, I thought: “Huh. Well, that wasn’t so bad.” Secondly, everyone is sufficiently unique, and concisely described, characterised and placed in the imaginary landscape to make it quite easy to tell everyone apart without any effort at all, as far as I was concerned. And where I give up with novels like these, with a plurality of characters, is when I start mixing them up so that the plot loses its sense. Rowling, it seems, is much too good at her craft to let this happen.
However, this overabundance of characters had certain other effects: It took me longer than usual to get caught up in the story. I think I spent over two weeks on the first two hundred pages, and I even read a couple of other books in between. However, once I got to page two hundred or so, I was hooked, and the remaining three hundred pages were consumed in a matter of days. And here we touch on why The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter in a more fundamental way than the obvious “not about whitches and wizards and magic and all”. The Casual Vacancy does not have a clear main character. Even if, after a few hundred pages, you, as a reader, start rooting more for certain characters than for others, no one or even two or three main characters ever receive more attention than others. And so you, as a reader, do not get as emotionally involved with the fate of one person, simply because the author doesn’t let you.
But it works. And it works quite well. And you really should read it. If you love Harry Potter you should read it because Rowling really does know her stuff. And if you never read Harry Potter or you read it and hated it (what’s wrong with you anyway?) you should also read it because it really isn’t Harry Potter or anything remotely like, and it is really very good in all sorts of ways having nothing to do with magic and saving the world from evil.
(Though that last part is not entirely true, I suppose it does, actually, concern itself partly with saving the world from evil.)
And I will keep on reading Rowlings books. Because I hope there will be more.