The Casual Vacancy, the first novel explicitly for adults by Harry Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, is a harrowing portrait of addiction. No, not to alcohol, although it does feature a middle-aged mother drunkenly making out with a spotty 16-year-old boy. No, not to drugs, although one character’s struggle with heroin is a raw depiction of physical need augmented by bureaucratic indifference.
No, J.K. Rowling is unsparing in her portrayal of a village in Britain’s West Country and its residents’ gruesome, reprehensible addiction to gossip. And on this matter, Rowling—so liberal on other issues—is unforgiving. Drug users, in Rowling’s Pagford, are worthy of sympathy and treatment; characters argue passionately and articulately in favor of keeping open the town’s treatment center. But if you’re a gossip addict—well, the only thing more ugly than your soul is your body.
The worst of the gossipmongers in Pagford is a relatively minor character in the book, Maureen Lowe, who co-owns the town delicatessen with village gadabout and council chair Howard Mollison. Maureen has little to do with the sprawling, wandering plot of Rowling’s novel, but in her voracious hunger for gossip she is the book’s spirit animal. We first meet her as Howard delivers the news that sets the novel in motion: the death of Barry Fairbrother, a councilman struck down in the parking lot of the country club by an aneurysm. As he relays the news, Howard hears “the yearning for every detail in her deep, ex-smoker’s voice.” “What’ll happen?” she asks Howard “greedily.”
Later, as news spreads that someone has posted scandalous information about one of the candidates for Barry’s empty council seat on a local message board—under the screen name “Barry Fairbrother’s Ghost,” no less—Maureen can hardly contain herself. Rowling’s description of her in this moment is repulsive:
Maureen’s droopy, bloodshot, heavily mascaraed eyes were fixed on the empty doorway like a bloodhound’s; her hunger to know what Shirley had found or seen was almost palpable. Maureen’s fingers, a clutch of bulging knuckles covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin, slid the crucifix and wedding ring up and down the chain around her neck. The deep creases running from the corners of Maureen’s mouth to her chin always reminded Samantha of a ventriloquist’s dummy.
When the news nears, Maureen’s mouth is “slack with anticipation,” as slack as the features of the novel’s heroin addict after she shoots up.
Maureen isn’t the only one. The first 100 pages of this 503-page book are devoted to the radiating news of Barry’s death, and throughout the novel Rowling is infatuated with the way information spreads from person to person in the town. Characters are forever phoning each other up to share rumors or getting frustrated by busy signals (do they still have busy signals in England?) because someone else has already phoned with rumors.
Gossip gets wives and children beaten up, turns friends against one another, costs a man his job, and sends a mentally ill father teetering near the edge. In the end so many characters are walking around town in a daze over the news they’ve heard or the rumors they’ve spread that they’re blind to the tragedy about to occur in their midst.
It’s easy to see the ways that Rowling’s allergic reaction to fame—her desire to exert control over her own privacy even as her untold hundreds of millions of dollars ensure she’ll never live anonymously again—has informed this book. The Internet is a trap: Accusations on message boards and bullying Facebook posts send characters spiraling out of control. And the real world is hardly better, filled as it is with people who think they know something about you. One character, riding in an elevator and thinking about what people have been saying about her, imagines “the lift doors sliding open to reveal a line of people in suits, waiting to accuse and condemn her.”