Rowling’s entrance into adult fiction compelling yet overwhelming

Julia Jacobs, co-opinions editor

In her debut adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling takes a Hagrid-sized leap from wands, wizards and an epic prophecy to the inner-drama surrounding the death of a Parish councilor. The plot initially seemed drab; the intrigue in the late Barry Fairbrother and the woes of the town of Pagford were nonexistent. But the soap opera-esque plot that ensued makes up for the dull premise and, in some ways, overwhelms with drama.

Rowling starts smack dab in the middle of the conflict with the sudden aneurysm of Fairbrother in the parking lot of a country club. In addition to leaving three children fatherless and a wife widowed, this Parish councilor’s death necessitates an election that could tip the scale on an issue that is at the core of Pagford’s grief.

The Fields is a housing development that lies on the border of Pagford and the adjacent town of Yarvil, a sort of ‘ghetto’ for the cash-strapped, drug-addicted or plain-old scum. The contention is whether the Fields, including the Bellchapel addiction clinic, should remain a part of Pagford or become Yarvil territory.

Pagfordians like father and son Howard and Miles Mollison, whose bank accounts are as expansive as their physiques, see the Fields as a drain on public funds.  But Fairbrother had been vehemently pro-Fields, dedicating himself to diverting Krystal Weedon, a headstrong, crass 16 year-old, from the path of her heroin-addicted mother.

Rowling analyzes the ripple effect of Fairbrother’s death as if she’s writing a narrative psychological experiment.  She writes in third person omniscient, reading as if everyone’s thoughts are amplified for all to hear.  Every action might have a reaction from several people in the same vicinity, to the point where identifying a ‘main character’ would be impossible because each character has the same limited time in the spotlight.

In terms of writing style, I wanted Rowling to pull out all the stops. I believed a shift in voice was necessary to coincide with the shift in target audience, yet Vacancy is just as verbose and riddled with weak metaphors as the Potter series. Disappointingly, the only thing separating Vacancy and the Potter series, dignifying an ‘adults only’ label, is the content.

There were plenty of themes Rowling deemed unfit for small ears in the Potter series: Dumbledore is gay, teenagers guzzle Butterbeer like orange juice and love potions have the same function as date rape drugs. In Vacancy, these divisive themes aren’t clouded with fairy dust but accentuated to the point where every character seems to be suffering from severe psychological and/or physical pain. The list begins with child abuse, heroin-addiction, pedophilia, self-harm and rape and continues on to the point where I begin to question whether Pagford is a quaint English town or a large-scale rehabilitation clinic.

The redeeming quality of this book, however, is the masterful way Rowling delivers the climax. The typical Potter structure rings true: a hundred-something pages pass before something really ‘happens’ but just before all is lost, she ramps up into a fabulously exciting pinnacle. In the spirit of a “whodunit” novel, she answers every question and connects every thread, leaving me satisfied yet sick to my stomach from vast amounts of human suffering in the unassuming town of Pagford.