J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is a socio-political novel in the tradition of Dickens and Thackeray. Rowling’s novel is closer to the great Victorian novelists than the work of contemporary authors, which, while still concerned with social realism, tend to focus more on familial relationships or personal struggles than the pressing social issues of the day. Its social purpose makes The Casual Vacancy appear almost old-fashioned, but this engagement is definitely not to Rowling’s detriment. Having a political conscience is rarely a bad move.
Rowling’s novel has a narrow focus on the idyllic English town of Pagford, but she casts her net wide in terms of the social issues covered (addiction, class, race and parental abuse are only a handful of the conscientious issues stirred up in Rowling’s story) and draws upon a class of characters as varied as any of Dickens’ major works. Although Rowling herself has stated that the novel seeks to probe our responses to the problem of social deprivation, The Casual Vacancy is not in any sense preachy. In fact, it’s made very clear that it’s a mistake to assume that any of the problems it raises could be easily solved. In addition to Rowling’s adept handling of these social issues, her writing conveys a complex sense of interiority:
Simon had the child’s belief that the rest of the world exists as staging for their personal drama; that destiny hung over him, casting clues and signs in his path, and he could not help feeling that he had been vouchsafed a sign, a celestial wink.
For me, however, there’s a fundamental problem with the kind of realist outlook adopted by Rowling. This worldview creates a false opposition between realism and magic. By magic, I mean a sense of joy or wonder, which is sorely lacking in The Casual Vacancy. The magical realism of Salman Rushdie, for example, is not oxymoronic, because it allows that real life can be magical. It seems more realistic to include this sense of the unexpected in a novel which espouses to evoke real life, rather than to be unremittingly bleak. A comparison with Harry Potter is at times unavoidable: whereas Harry Potter promotes the all-conquering power of love and the sanctity of the family, in Rowling’s first adult novel, the families are fractured, and the marriages loveless and unfaithful. Death, too, is portrayed in starkly different terms in both works: Harry Potter focuses on the spiritual, while The Casual Vacancy is much more materialist, with a heavy focus on gross physicality.
Though certainly not by any means a failure, the lack of positivity in The Casual Vacancy distracts from the gravity of the social issues it discusses. Maybe I’m just idealistic, but for me, real life has its own kind of magic, and this sense of wonder is sadly lacking in Rowling’s novel.