If there is one literary surprise this whole year, it is J.K. Rowling's venture into a post- Harry Potter world, "The Casual Vacancy." Rowling has created a novel that proves she was born to put pen to paper. "Vacancy" feels as if it has its own beating heart by the time you're reaching the final stretch.
Firstly, let's talk genre. As good as a novel can be, it usually will not transcend its own genre. It needs to follow certain beats and rules to work. For example, Lee Child is one of the greatest genre writers putting out books today. His novels don't transcend their genres, they merely master them.
What "The Casual Vacancy" does is different (not to say novelists like Child are not brilliant). Rowling's story exists without easy classification and this is not due to my shortcoming as a critic (hopefully), but rather it is a testament to what Rowling manages to create.
Now, let's talk audience; you and me. Most novels find their core audience in a certain group of people, be they young, old, romantics or thrill seekers. The point is this: all of these people, and I mean ALL of these people, will enjoy the endless pleasures of "Vacancy." I am someone who keeps his reading list down to the classic writers like Hemingway and modern thriller masters like Stephen Hunter ... and I loved "The Casual Vacancy."
The novel finds its own spot in the literary sandbox and creates a world that seems so small in conception, but becomes big, complex and enriching through Rowling's comprehensive writing.
To try and explain the plot to you, dear reader, would be an insult to the novel. The basic setup is this: in a small English town, a man named Barry Fairbrother unexpectedly drops dead. The death shocks and surprises the town and leaves what is known as a casual vacancy on the town council. What ensues is the breakdown of social manipulations, small town politics and very real human behavior. The less you know of "Vacancy" going in, the better. This is a novel that needs to let its surprises come naturally.
"Vacancy" touches on subjects like politics, but it hardly matters. Everything is kept confined to this small town and its people. Rowling keeps her focus on these characters and breaks down every social action, every look and laugh and glance from across the room.
Rowling establishes her character's behaviors into such technical and selfish moments that it was hard for me to read too much without closing the book and getting a breath of fresh air. This, of course, is a compliment.
"The Casual Vacancy" is a world that you enter. Rowling is so comprehensive and realistic in her approach to this town and its inhabitants that it's hard to put the novel down and feel as though you didn't just get back from a quick trip across the sea.
The only fair warnings I can even think to give readers are these: the novel is dense. The hardcover edition is 503 pages. It requires an investment, but that investment pays off. The novel is also very British, my fellow Americans. There are phrases that went straight over this writer's head and sometimes Rowling will write the English accent into some of her characters' talk, mainly the less educated ones.
"The Casual Vacancy" is one of the best reads of the year and I say that as someone who has never touched a "Harry Potter" novel and was ready to scold "Vacancy" like Armond White scolds a Best Picture winner. It's the perfect gift for any reader this Christmas. It delights, it thrills, it entertains, it educates. It does it all.