J.K. Rowling's new novel drafts complex cast of characters

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“The Casual Vacancy,” J.K. Rowling’s new novel, came out Sept. 27. Her 500-page adult novel explores themes of rich vs. poor, with a colorful cast of characters.

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J.K. Rowling is still J.K. Rowling. She is the same author who produced the “Harry Potter” and can still conjure up a colorful cast of characters who dictate a puzzling and intricate plot. Her new novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” proves this.

The premise is simple enough, but with a page count of more than 500, “The Casual Vacancy” is anything but simple. Within the first three pages, Rowling kills off Barry Fairbrother, which leaves an empty seat on the parish council of the English town of Pagford. This sets in motion a runoff election to fill the casual vacancy that was created by Fairbrother’s death. Fairbrother’s death comes when the decision on a hotly debated topic is approaching the parish council. Privileged, richer members of the council are trying to push the Fields (a poor neighborhood) out of Pagford into a neighboring city so they no longer have to police, educate, clean up after or provide rehab for the neighborhood’s inhabitants.

Fairbrother fought to keep the Fields part of Pagford, so much that his wife resented him for it. But with Fairbrother dead, both sides of the debate scramble to find a replacement that will tip the balance in the issue. “The Casual Vacancy” explores the coldest and harshest of themes, including self-harm, rape, death and sex. Rowling handles these mature themes with class and professionalism. Even the sex scenes read smoothly, unlike the recent erotica trilogy that put readers worldwide in bondage.

This book is not for children. Rowling has expressed this fact in multiple interviews and it is something the media has focused on and explained in almost every headline. It is as if the press finds it odd and a novelty that a grown woman at the age of 47 wants to write for her own demographic.

But while Rowling is writing for adults, she is not always treating her readers as such. Too many times Rowling spells things out for her readers rather than letting them infer and reach conclusions on their own.

Thankfully though, what Rowling does best has not changed. She commands the ability to draft an elaborate cast of characters who mingle well together. But her cast is not perfect. Many of the adult characters are cliché and flat. There is Samantha Morrison, wife of Mark Morrison, who finds her husband boring, hates the tiny town she lives in and does little more than complain for most of the novel.

The teenagers in the novel are Rowling’s most engaging characters. Stuart Wall (who goes by Fats), is a philosophical, ideological and occasionally bratty, self-centered adolescent whose ability to appear nonchalant and indifferent in the face of any situation infuriates his parents. Most importantly, there is Krystal Weedon, a girl from the Fields. The novel revolves predominantly around Krystal, and what is to be done with both her and the people of the Fields. Rowling’s best-selling series was about and for young adults, so it is not surprising that her teenagers are her most compelling characters.

But as great as the characters are, there are too many of them. Readers are still getting introductions and basic character outlines as late as page 300. Perhaps this is what happens when an author goes from writing a seven-book series to a stand-alone novel. Rowling still manages to keep a tight rein on the plot, but just because she can manage 34 characters does not mean she should.

In a masterful conclusion, Rowling does not pull any magic to save the characters that were doomed from the start, and “The Casual Vacancy” ends on a depressing but realistic note. But readers will find solace in the last page, which has pangs of hope in it.

And yes, you will cry.

Printed on Tuesday, October 2, 2012 as: Rowling enchants new adult audience