Will Harry Potter fans enjoy JK Rowling's first adult book, "The Casual Vacancy"? The answer, I believe, is yes.
The New York Times' notoriously inflammatory reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, says that without wands and wizards, Rowling's story is left with little more than the stodgy, petty Muggles found in the opening scenes of the Harry Potter books. She has a point: Like Harry's quarrelsome Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, the adult characters in "Vacancy" allow small-stakes bickering to evolve into absurd melodrama. But small moments shared between the younger characters are evocative, and sometimes even magical.
"This isn't a book that's easy to fall in love with, the way Harry Potter was with its charming, winning hero and his plucky friends, saving the world from evil with the help of a powerful spell or two. Even with its moments of humor, it's a hard story where some people just don't get saved, because really, they never had a chance. It's filled with often unlikable people, some of whom cross the line into terrible. They're all unhappy in one way or another, even if the only people who know that are themselves, if that."
These are all fair statements, but I don't believe they subtract from the quality of the book, or even make it difficult to recognize the similarities between this darker novel and Rowling's more optimistic Young Adult stories. In fact, I'd call "The Casual Vacancy" uniquely Rowling. Here's why:
Its strength is highlighting the intricacies of personal relationships, especially those between children.
In the Harry Potter books, the adults aren't as well developed as the children, which makes sense, because the children are the protagonists. In "The Casual Vacancy," the children are also the most dynamic--Fats, an idealistic, Holden Caulfield-like character, is obsessed with authenticity and Nietzsche, but has a sobering experience that leads to a surprising act of bravery; Andrew, Fats' closest friend, is empathetic and heroic, but bites his tongue rather than saving the day when an overweight peer is bullied.
Rowling is at her best when writing about the duo - A particularly compelling scene involves the two hiding out in a cave after a beloved councilman's funeral, speaking about sex and town politics with the forced flippancy so often used by insecure teenagers. In response to Fats's revelation that he "fucked" a classmate, Rowling writes of Andrew: "'Where?' he asked, stupidly. It was not what he wanted to know."
It reveals Rowling's interest in discussing oppression due to social classes.
Much of "The Casual Vacancy" focuses on the rift created in the idyllic English town of Pagford over the issue of "The Fields," an economically struggling area. While many characters, such as a caseworker and a medical doctor, wish to assist the poor, others believe the associated violence and drug use negatively impacts Pagford's well-being. After a respected, pro-Fields councilman dies in the novel's opening pages, the city's political divide widens.
This battle against the oppressed resembles Herminone's fight for the rights of house elves in the Harry Potter series. And of course, in Rowling's earlier books, almost all positive characters come from humble beginnings: The Weasleys and Harry are portrayed as living in near-squalor, whereas the Malfoys (the evil characters) live in an elaborate mansion.
Clearly, the theme of social oppression is of interest to Rowling.
It's way too long.
Rowling was sometimes criticized for her increasingly long and, therefore, long-winded narratives in the Harry Potter series. The same holds true for this book; some scenes do nothing more than reiterate already-stated opinions. Entire characters, such as Andrew's barely-mentioned brother, could have been eliminated entirely.
Rowling belabors several points in "The Casual Vacancy" - enough to make one wonder whether she and Charles Dickens have more in common than their focus on class. Was she paid by the word?
Still, Potter fans shouldn't be too irked by the excess.
It concentrates on a more conventional mode of storytelling, relying on plot more than language particularities.
A reviewer for The Guardian pointed out that in many cases Rowling's language is "not quite doing what she wants it to do," citing a character's hatred of "sudden death" as an odd misstep.
But Harry Potter fans are accustomed to overlooking awkward language; As a Guardian article points out, the series' greatest fault is its prose. Conversely, the series' strength is weaving together a compelling story filled with interconnected characters who engage in interesting and surprising, if maudlin actions.
Reviewers have complained that the omniscient narration used in "The Casual Vacancy" makes the characters seem unbelievable - why are they so keenly aware of their motivations? Why is there little room for the reader to question why the characters do what they do? But I'd argue that this isn't a flaw, but a matter of stylistic taste. Rowling's writing harkens back to the cut-and-dry, often dogmatic prose of, say, the Victorians. It will probably make Modernists squirm, but for Harry Potter fans, it shouldn't be a problem.
Yes, "The Casual Vacancy" utilizes third-person omniscient narration, offering psychological insight that, although often wonky, is nowhere to be found in the Harry Potter books. And yes, it describes some grim realities that are much more unsettling than the enigmatic Voldemort, because unlike the crimes of Harry's foil, domestic violence and rape are things that must be named rather than danced around.
But on the whole, the similarities between the Harry Potter series and "The Casual Vacancy" make it clear that Rowling has an epithet-worthy style. Broad-stroke storytelling, a critical eye turned towards class differences and tender moments between friends? That's positively Rowlingian!
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