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Moving on from Potter

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Vacancy final      Let’s just get this out of the way now. With her first novel targeted for adults, J.K. Rowling has proved that she is more than a one-trick wizard.

Forget about Hogwarts, though, as the magic of “The Casual Vacancy” comes not from a wand but from Rowling’s masterful story about society’s failings and trappings. The novel, set in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford, chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council and the ensuing race to replace him.

Buyers beware, however. “Vacancy” is decidedly not a children’s novel. Percolating through the pages are tales of rape, suicide, heroin addiction, domestic abuse and vivid descriptions of condoms and sex. Like in “Potter,” Rowling utilizes her pen to engage and enrage her readers, captivating them with incredibly real and relatable characters. This particular reader fell captive to Rowling’s spell. And one can’t help but develop an emotional connection to these fictitious people. At that point, the reader is at the mercy of Rowling’s whim, which, by the way, takes some time to flesh out.

There is an extremely large cast of characters in this novel. Rowling gives us eight households whose ties to one another become clearer as the routines and preoccupations of the town’s daily life are revealed. This revelation takes about 100 pages; the plot blunders along until the reader has perhaps been more than introduced to the families of Pagford. While Harry’s mates had seven novels to have their story told, one gets the sense that Rowling attempted to do the same for this novel within the bindings of less than 500 pages. As frustrating as this may be, the reward is captivating.

At the center of “The Casual Vacancy” is the vicious political battle over plans to redraw the municipal boundaries when the possibility that a nearby housing project could be shunted to a different district arises. This goal is dear to the heart of Pagford’s elitists. The face-off pits one those opposed to the public housing project and clinic for addicts with another that has a sense of duty toward the less fortunate. It’s a subject with the potential to reverberate with a socially cognizant American audience.

However, the real heart of novel lies not with the town’s adults but with its teenagers, whose suffering is measured in large part by how much they issue their pain back to the people around them. These teenagers, much like SLU students, perhaps, are more preoccupied with smoking cigarettes, loathing school and, yes, sex. It is with the teens of Pagford where the hearts of the readers are touched and broken.

It is clear that Rowling is concerned with the ills of society. A one-time struggling single mother, Rowling has seen both sides of the clouds, and with “The Casual Vacancy,” she attempts to do what “Potter” did not – bring the battle for society back to reality, where the reader resides.

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