When J.K. Rowling announced the publication of her first adult novel, people were apprehensive at best. How do you follow up one of the best-selling book series in the history of publishing? Most people would say that you can’t.
Unsurprisingly, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy has received mixed reviews, with many people labeling it as dull. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani goes so far as to say that, “There is no magic in this book — in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery….[the characters’] stories neither engage nor transport us. ” This contrasts with The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling’s second adult book, which she published under a different name, and which received plaudits from many reviewers.
It’s entirely possible that the differences in feedback for these books is different simply because The Cuckoo’s Calling is better than The Casual Vacancy. It’s also possible that the the bar is set at different levels for each J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith. I am not going to attempt to defend either. Instead, I want to pull The Casual Vacancy away from the J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter franchise and consider it as a single entity.
First and foremost, in response to Kakutani’s charge that no narrative magic exists in this book, I would post that J.K. Rowling’s prose is beautifully crafted. The Casual Vacancy is a novel with multiple narrators who are closely intertwined, yet each voice is distinctive, as is the content associated with each. This sense of voice is characteristic of Rowling’s writing.
Second, in response to the charge that The Casual Vacancy is a dull book, I think I should share a remark made by my friend and classmate, David Lemmons. To paraphrase, some people enjoy books whose plots are driven by action, whereas others relish novels in which action is surreptitious, and hidden within character development. J.K. Rowling’s readership from the Harry Potter series is evenly split, but The Casual Vacancy is not a novel driven by action. Rather, it is the reclamation and Icarus-esque descent of characters in Pagford that make it stirring.
The fact of the matter is that many “dull” (character-driven) books are still exceptionally well-crafted and well-loved. Titles such as Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even The Kite Runner could fall into this grouping. I would go so far as to argue that the Millennium Trilogy could be categorized as “dull” as well.
I will proudly claim The Casual Vacancy as a splendid, subtle, and well-written book, and I will give it a solid four out of five stars.