Book Review: Plot is surprisingly vacant in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy


With her first adult novel The Casual Vacancy, it’s clear that J.K. Rowling is trying – perhaps too hard – to distance herself from the boy wizard that made her famous.

Rowling’s first foray into another genre of literature is set in the seemingly idyllic country parish of Pagford, where a local councilman’s death brings the entire town’s secrets to the forefront.

There isn’t much of a storyline in The Casual Vacancy, but Rowling’s bountiful cast of characters drives the book forward. The characters’ interwoven lives and their actions toward one another slowly push the minimal action along.

Everyone in the town has something to lose and gain from the councilman’s death that causes parents to act like teenagers and their teenagers to rebel in shocking ways.

The novel spares no taboos: Rowling tackles drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, rape and incest, to name a few. Each page is littered with expletives that make it initially jarring to read.

That’s not to say The Casual Vacancy is a bad novel. Rowling is a talented writer who fleshes out her characters to an outstanding degree, giving each person so many layers that it’s impossible not to relate to them in some way.

She also knows how to properly develop a setting. Rowling describes the environment so vividly that her vision is clear to the mind’s eye.

What makes The Casual Vacancy difficult to get through is the lack of an interesting plot. After the death that sets the characters in motion, the rest of the novel’s 500-plus pages center around certain members of the town squabbling over the “casual vacancy” left by the councilman’s empty council seat.

This novel is entirely character driven, and readers looking for an exciting plot won’t find that here. The British slang may also turn some readers off to The Casual Vacancy, as this wording can be confusing for readers unfamiliar with the terminology. Also, the novel’s end feels a bit abrupt and leaves several characters’ storylines unresolved.

The Casual Vacancy is a solid first outing for J.K. Rowling to distance herself from the Harry Potter series. She doesn’t need to prove her talent to anyone, and this new novel is hopefully only the first of her many other contributions to literature.