With the witches and wizards all grown up, is there any magic left? That’s been the endlessly posed question during the long wait for The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. Rowling released it as though it were a Harry Potter novel, mostly because she can. No other author can match her for star power, not after sales of 450 million copies of the seven Potter novels made her the first person to become a billionaire by writing fiction. Unless and until she makes a misstep, Rowling, who received a $5-million advance for the new novel, can market as she pleases. So it was no surprise to see Vacancy receive the full Potter, with information about it dispensed in the thinnest of drips.
In February came the announcement the novel existed, along with the barest outline of plot (a man dies, social pretensions are exposed, class and generational warfare explode) and setting (a small West Country town called Pagford), and Rowling’s cultural reach was once more on display. The inhabitants of Tutshill, the West Country village in which Rowling spent her teen years, lined up to tell the Telegraph that Tutshill was no Pagford. “She has a very negative attitude about the place,” sniffed one ex-classmate.
In April Rowling provided the title. Six weeks ago the cover arrived, prompting one British news site, in an echo of the media frenzy that accompanied the later Potter books, to seek out a design expert to decode the contents from the image. With publication scheduled to be simultaneous worldwide, and no early reviews permitted, all that was missing were midnight bookshop openings, complete with preteen wizards and witches in costume. The buzz was ratcheted up nicely—pre-orders climbed to two million copies—but so, too, was the pressure on Rowling to deliver. She may have relatively little financial skin in this game—$5 million is less than half a per cent of her estimated worth—but she does care very much for her reputation.
The answer to the speculation finally arrived in bookstores on Sept. 27, in a novel set light years away from the world of quidditch, butter beer and three-headed dogs named Fluffy, yet similar to the Potter novels in most other respects, including its 500-page length. In stripped-down form, devoid of the surface dazzle of Harry’s life—though buoyed by a strong, often rough, sexual current—Rowling shows that, yes, she can write. The Casual Vacancy, in fact, highlights Rowling’s strengths as a writer while obscuring her weaknesses.
She has always been a plotter of genius, which is just another way of saying she is a great storyteller. When Barry Fairbrother—the character who dominates the novel despite dropping dead on page four—dies of an aneurysm, the anthill that is Pagford is kicked over. A “casual vacancy” is the legal term for what is left on the Parish Council where Fairbrother led the progressive wing, although the gaping hole blown in the town’s moral core by his sudden death is one of the larger meanings Rowling attaches to the phrase. (Virtually every character also has an aura of emptiness, of something missing, usually the ability to realize that other people suffer, too.) Various individuals, all linked to one another and to many others through a tight social web—almost all with damaged or troubled teenage offspring—start to jostle for Fairbrother’s seat in a story that turns on the intersection of contingency and moral character.
But not on literary characters. Few of them have real depth, despite their creator’s profoundly felt moral outrage. That’s a criticism often levelled at Dickens, another great plotter (and crusader) who obscured his characters’ flatness the same way Rowling does, by moving them about in an intricate plot so smoothly their flaws are scarcely noticeable.
With her page-turning Dickensian plots, a Thomas Hardy-like ending and a main character (equally notable for his vast gut, his insights into his opponents’ psyches and his silky manners) reminiscent of Count Fosco, the villain of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Rowling is a 19th-century writer mysteriously unstuck in time. That’s why Harry Potter’s adult fans loved her, and that’s why they will certainly love her new novel, too.