Book review: Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy — Wait, What?

by Luke Eldredge

J.K. Rowling has moved from children-friendly fantasy to the grim world of poverty, politics and scandal in her new book, “The Casual Vacancy,” released on Sept. 27.

Rowling has sold more than 450 million copies of her Harry Potter series, making her the world’s first billionaire author and richer than the Queen of England. This success was a substantial leap from her starting point as a clinically depressed single parent surviving on state handouts, according to the Hindustan Times. This humble beginning is a greater influence on her new book for adults than it was on the whimsical fantasy world of Harry Potter.

“The Casual Vacancy” takes place in a fictional, small English town, reminiscent of those in which Rowling spent her youth. The town of Ragford is shook to the britches when parish councilman Barry Fairbrother dies. Not because Fairbrother was dearly beloved, but because of the empty chair in the parish council he left behind. Middle class villagers plot and war with one another to elect someone sympathetic to their cause. Each with their own agenda of what to do with the Fields, a poor neighborhood outside of their quaint village.

In the framework of this rather dull conflict, Rowling explores themes such as single parenthood, prostitution, adolescent lust and heroin addiction. Though the characters, to varying degrees, are monstrous, the plot dim, and the themes dark, the book has been described as quite comical — a dark comedy rather than a postmodern reflection of middle class politics.

The Guardian’s critic, Theo Tait, said it was “no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny.”

Though the humor, being cynical and Britishly dry, may not be enough to swing the book away from crushing depravity.

New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani said, “The real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is not only disappointing — it’s dull.”

If the reader doesn’t find the huffing and puffing of depressingly small-minded townsfolk dull, then there’s nothing to worry about, nothing but the utter lack of likeable characters that is. The success of “The Casual Vacancy” is going to have more to do with the name on the cover than the teenage temper tantrum that is its 500 pages.

When the title of her new book was released in April, it made international news. When the cover image was released in July it made an even greater stir, to the extent of design “gurus” being hired to analyze the cover’s mysterious design. Reporters had to sign stacks of paperwork to simply touch a manuscript, even the publishers weren’t allowed to read it, according to The Guardian. “The Casual Vacancy” has arrived with as much gossip, speculation and secrecy as a presidential election.

Rowling’s new book sold over a million pre-order copies based on her name alone. To die hard fans, this book has more hype than the second coming, but in the end, it may be overwhelmingly disappointing.

Contact Luke Eldredge at

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