If you’re as much of a Potterhead as I am, J.K. Rowling’s name on the cover of any book is enough to pique your interest. Unfortunately, the nostalgia-induced excitement won’t be enough to get you through Rowling’s first post-Potter attempt, The Casual Vacancy. The story gets its impetus from the death of Barry Fairbrother, parish council leader and pseudo mayor of Pagford. The seemingly peaceful English village is secretly on the cusp of civil war with its citizens divided over how to deal with The Fields, the housing projects on the edge of town. Under Fairbrother, government housing is protected from the opposing political faction that wishes to foist it off into the hands of a neighboring town. With his seat up for grabs, tensions between the Pagfordians heighten and the future of The Fields is called into question. The remaining 400 pages detail numerous political and personal quarrels that are intended to offer a searing social commentary pitting the selfish, class-conscious citizens against those fighting on behalf of the Fields. Rowling’s argument, though noble, falls flat. Rather than allowing you to become emotionally involved in the conflict, the characters used to narrate the story alienate you through their pettiness and preoccupation with local gossip.
It’s understandable that Rowling, after completing Harry Potter, would want to deviate from her previously spell-strewn path. However, in creating the antithesis of Harry and his world she goes too far, trapping herself within the dank, lack-luster walls of reality. Where Hogwarts is enthralling and warm, Pagford is isolating and generic. Potter characters are fully developed with faults and backstories that reveal their motives, earning your admiration or censure. The Pagfordians are as charismatic and well rounded as ply board, leaving you uninterested in their successes and failures. Ultimately, weak characters and tedious plot lines combine to form a novel that is as disappointing as it is dreary.