In English literature, country life is often held up as the idyllic contrast to the immorality of city living. In The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling uses the event of an unexpected election after the death of a parish councillor to expose the bitter feuds and tensions that lie beneath the romantic image of the English country village. Although firmly rooted in its British setting, the situation should be recognizable to small towns everywhere. The reduced degree of separation between the people of town means that every bit of personal gossip becomes hopelessly entangled with issues of municipal politics. This is sharp social commentary in the tradition of Jane Austen or Elizabeth Gaskell, but without the delicate squeamishness with which those genteel writers handled their topics.
The Casual Vacancy is almost soap opera-like, not because it is melodramatic or low quality, but because it requires the reader to become intensely involved in the sordid private affairs of the cast of characters. Rowling uses multiple points of view so that the reader sees the worst and most private thoughts everyone in the fictional village of Pagford. Characters who seem likable or sympathetic when seen from the perspective of one narrator subsequently have their worst weaknesses exposed by their own narration, and may then appear again, caricatured as a villain from the perspective of yet another narrator. Character and personality become matters so subjective that it is impossible to judge anyone. The exposure is so complete that it is difficult to summon much for than pity for most of the characters; there is so little kindness in the midst of the petty viciousness and self-interested machinations. Despite the ambiguity of the characters, and the lack of a clear protagonist, Rowling skillfully manages the nearly twenty characters that bring her multiple storylines together.
If Harry Potter was about friendship and loyalty and bringing out the best in people in the face of danger, then The Casual Vacancy is about exposing the worst in people. This is not the Big E Evil of Voldemort, but the petty and mundane indifference to everyday suffering. The characters fail to consider the consequences of their actions any further than they benefit themselves or punish their enemies, leaving a trail of collateral damage behind them. Rowling adds many darkly humourous touches but the core of the novel is formed by the depressing reality of drug abuse, self-harm, infidelity, racism and rape. It is rather as if Harry has gone off to Hogwarts, and we have been left at Privet Drive with the Dursleys; these characters, however real, simply do not make for pleasant company. After ambling slowly along for 350 pages gathering little momentum, the story comes to crashing conclusion in the final 40 pages. This ending verges on the soapy melodrama Rowling skillfully avoids for the majority of the book. Rowling’s writing is strong and the village feels so real you would swear you had been there, but it is difficult to face the depressing reality of Pagford, knowing you could be at Hogwarts instead.