I knew when I pre-ordered J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy all those months ago that I would not be getting more of Harry’s story. I was quite confident this story would be as mundane and non-magical as possible, to be purposefully very different from the magical world that captivated millions for ten years. And that was the extent of my expectations.

I deliberately avoided all reviews of The Casual Vacancy because I adore the Harry Potter series and wanted to read this story and judge it by my own reactions with no preconceptions from other peoples’ opinions.

This is not the stay-up-reading-at-all-costs, page-turning, read-in-one-sitting novel that the Harry Potter books were for me. In fact, it took me a few pages to really get into the story. But then, on page 40, I was hooked. Nothing particularly momentous happens on that page, but it was then that I knew this was a book I had to finish.

The Casual Vacancy is not a happy book. It is, however, a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people motivated by their desire to fill some void. Rowling here gives us deeply flawed, not altogether likeable characters.  The dynamics and conflicts, with self, with spouse, with parents, and with children, are what make this story so compelling. I think that the name “The Casual Vacancy” fits on many levels. First is the literal definition of a vacant councillor seat.  But it’s also vacancies in character; something missing from a marriage; something missing from life; a void- real or imagined- of self worth; a lack of money. So many things that can inform our decisions or set our lives on a different path, depending on what we do with the emptiness.

J. K. Rowling has always had strong thoughts about poverty and the desperation it breeds, and those thoughts are omnipresent in this book.  While the moral arguments provide the fodder for the story, it’s the characterizations that drew me in and brought the emotional impact- an impact I admit I was not expecting.   As I mentioned earlier, few of the  characters are immensely likeable, but they are certainly relatable.  In fact, were we not so privy to these characters’ innermost thoughts, we’d probably like some of them just fine, because they put on a much different face in public.  But three of the teenagers really stood out to me.  One trying to survive his family life under an abusive father, just doing the best he can.  A teenage girl from the council housing who faces an uphill battle for anything in life, given the circumstances of her parentage.  And one girl, so bullied she resorts to drastic action.  This character made me cry. Rowling wrote about her pain in such a way that it was nearly palpable.

The Casual Vacancy isn’t for everyone.  In true Rowling fashion, it’s not particularly fast paced.  But it does tell a story that I liked, and has some very well done characterizations, and packed an emotional depth I wasn’t expecting. There’s more than one world in J.K. Rowling’s head, and I’m glad she’s sharing them all with us.