(As it turns out, the people’s I wrote this for didn’t ask for this at all. So here it is. )
There was great interest over the release of Rowling’s first ‘adult’ novel. Although much of that was just plain overexcited ness on the part of a few since technically the last Harry Potter books were pretty adult in their themes and scenes and just the adding of expletives does not make a book ‘adult’.
Underneath all that mumbling of ‘adult’ was the unsaid taunt – her first book for the ‘grown-ups’, because most are happy to dismiss Harry Potter as one of those things that kids like – a passing fad. No this one would be a real test of whether Rowling was a ‘real’ author.
So how did Rowling’s tale of the unraveling of a quaint village in England over a parish council election do in this test?
There were some glowing reviews. In fact Lev Grossman’s review in TIME magazine was a barely contained orgasm –
“It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize.”
But most reviews were subdued.
Critics agreed the story was well told. One could almost hear the collective grateful sigh in the critics’ community once it was confirmed that yes, Rowling can write a good tale without wands and Voldemort.
But (sometimes a bit hesitantly, sometimes aggressively) they also derided the shortcomings of the tale – not enough action, too many characters, simple plot, formulaic tale etc.
The use of profanity was also criticized, but that criticism can be brushed aside as the side effect of reading a ‘Rowling book’ with bad words.
Here is a sample from Theo Tait’s review in the Guardian which sums it up well-
“Rowling is good at teenagers, particularly boys, and unhappy couples. The book has a righteous social message, about responsibility for others, and a great big plot that runs like clockwork…
…The plot is often predictable; it requires a large helping of artificial contrivance; and it lurches into melodrama in the final act….
…The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all.”
So basically it is not a ‘great’ book. It joins the legions of books released every year that are ‘alright’.
Side note: One of the highlights about the book is its portrayal of Sikhs. A Sikh family is the only non-white family in the village. Readers have praised Rowling for her in-depth study into Sikhism, accurately depicting the religious and social lives of Sikhs while giving us a view of how life is for them as second-generation Britons.
The true nature of the book, for what it’s worth, can be judged by this quote by Allison Pearson in the Daily Telegraph –
“I had just read a passage written by the world’s favorite children’s author in which a teenager is raped by her mother’s heroin dealer, a man who may well be the father of the girl’s own three-year-old stepbrother, although it’s hard to know for sure when the mum concerned is a prostitute,”
And here is where Potter comes in.
This book lacks the appeal of Harry Potter and the world of wizards…because there is nothing heart-warming and soulful about these folks or this tale.
The characters are never going to become iconic (a weird sort of success there, since they are supposed to be nobodies in an unknown village).
They most definitely will not overcome giant, world-shaking problems by pulling out of a wand and shouting out something memorable.
The book is grimy and full of corrupt, dark people with no morals doing horrible things to each other.
In short, it is a tale of this world.
But truth be told, this world prefers the unreal to the cold facts.
The world is still drunk on wizardly magic and the hangover is battering ‘Casual Vacancy’.
Does this book match up to emotions created by the Harry Potter series? It has not. It never could and it was never meant to.
Would a book like this get this kind of attention if it wasn’t written by Rowling?