When you reach a certain level of notoriety and authorial success, your books stop being a publishing gamble and start being a given. Without even trying, Little, Brown &Co. are going to make a mint on Rowling’s newest offering, and they knew it from the day the contract was inked. In the same way that any book with James Patterson’s name on the cover will top all the charts (even if it’s mostly written by someone else), any book Rowling published was fated to succeed, no matter how dull it was. It sounds a little cynical, and it is – but there’s a silver lining, too. These blockbusters pave the way for publishers to take a risk on newer authors with smaller print runs and no guaranteed successes; for every book like The Casual Vacancy, you get a crack at a few dozen unknowns, little unlikely gems like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

The other privilege – or perhaps curse – about this level of fame is the relationship you have with your editor. When you are a bona fide brilliant author with millions upon millions of your books in print, when you are a household name, when a character of your invention is shorthand for an entire cultural movement, who’s going to read your manuscript and tell you it’s just TOO DARN LONG? Certainly, nobody had that conversation with Joanne Rowling, whose first novel for adults uses 500 pages to tell the story of…a city council election. (Do you remember what other incredible feats of storytelling she’s managed to shoehorn into 500 pages, or even less? I do.) She has a lot of talent, especially for humor and dialog and characterization; she can inhabit and bring to life many different personalities and create unique, interesting, multi-dimensional characters. She’s just let her talent and her vision run away with her.

Pagford is a small English town; one of its city councillors has just died young and unexpectedly. Rowling tells us what follows through the eyes of no less than seventeen independent characters (and those are just the ones I could remember off the top of my head). That viewpoint is always in flux; in one paragraph you see the inner turmoil of teenaged Gaia, and in the next the thoughts belong to her mother Kay; on the next page of the same chapter, you’re in the head of a totally different person in a different family. It’s not easy to follow; I was halfway through before I could confidently tell Miles apart from Colin and Tessa apart from Kay. This constant shifting and the wide variety of inner monologues does provide the sturdiest backbone of the novel in showing how, no matter how petty or inconsiderate or mean or low our actions may seem, all people are virtuous in their own eyes, or are merely held hostage to their circumstances.

The jacket copy describes this election as a  “war,” but I wouldn’t apply that term to sullen teenagers playing pranks and old women ramping up their catty gossip and a few hundred people voting in a city council election. I’d just call it everyday life, and I don’t think everyday life needs this many point of view characters or this many pages. If this 500 page novel were half that long, it could be brilliant and beautiful – instead it’s bloated and boring.

2 Thoughts on “The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

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