JK Rowling's fans are abuzz with excitement. Or rather, they were. Now some of them may be crying into their polyjuice potion. Those that so eagerly anticipated Rowling's new book, Casual Vacancy, and went into it without researching what the book was actually about,(or failed to see Rowling's many announcements that this new book was not like Harry Potter) may have been disappointed, or in fact, horrified.
Since I'm not one for plunging in with my eyes shut, I took heed of the warnings, put my big girl pants on, and started reading, fully prepared for references to drugs and even (gasp) sex. My first impressions went something like this,
"Wow, he dies right off. No beating around the bush." No, this isn't a spoiler. The entire book is based around Barry Fairbrother's death.
"Geeze, this is grim."
"I know people like this!"
For Harry Potter fans, I warn you, you will find no magic here. There is no "nick of time" magic spell to save the day, no light hearted banter to cut the tension, no clear-cut good versus evil. There is just...reality. And some people don't like that. This isn't a happy novel. It's a character study, and most of the characters are horrible and selfish and every last one of them has an agenda. In spite of the fact that this sounds bad, I found myself eating up The Casual Vacancy with a kind of guilty enjoyment that usually accompanies watching episodes of Maury or Judge Judy. It's like a train wreck. You know it's terrible, but you just can't look away. The characters in the novel are horrible people, but they're so very real.
It's not for everybody. I wouldn't let a teenager read this. As JK Rowling kept repeating, this is an adult book, people! There have been a number of reactions to Casual Vacancy, mixed reviews and people ranting on goodreads. One woman took to her blog to complain that "how dare Rowling write an adult novel? My child is telling me he's going to read it because JK Rowling wrote it". I'm not quite sure when we started blaming authors for our children's misbehaviour, maybe this is a new thing? I used to sneak Stephen King books into my room and read them under the covers, and when my parents found out, I got in trouble! Clearly they should have written a nasty letter to King!
Reactions to The Casual Vacancy:
Many of the reviews have been less than stellar, and a few border on snarky and unnecessarily venomous. I question the mindset of reviews like this, many of which came from the Guardian. I can picture the reviewer, sitting in an overstuffed armchair smoking a pipe and pronouncing judgements in a haughty, nasal voice,
“JK Rowling’s first novel for adults is Turkey”.
Um, sorry? The review then goes on to say JK Rowling is bad writer, and childlike in her ability to “bang out a narrative, without self-regard or a yearning for peer approval” (oh, I see what you did there, subtle barb, very clever!)
“More than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat,” reviewer Jan Moir wrote.
Rowling has reportedly taken this as a compliment.
"Rowling has said the worst anyone might say about The Casual Vacancy is that it is 'dreadful' — and that she 'should have stuck to writing for kids.' Well, here goes ... Sorry, JK, "The Casual Vacancy, which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn't dreadful. It's just dull."
The Guardian reviewer also lumped on some Harry Potter insults, and then went on to lambaste another of my childhood favourites, Enid Blyton. I can only guess that after this they went and told a group of small children there is no Santa, snatched some teddy bears away from toddlers, and whatever other joy-sucking hobbies they may practice in their spare time.
My Final Impression:
I will admit that Rowling’s prose is not as sparkling as some other literary fiction. But shiny is as shiny does, and I've found myself very bored in the middle of certain “highbrow” fiction, some of which I wasn't able to finish, in spite of how poetic they may be. Rowling is capable of taking an almost painfully boring plot line and turning it into a fascinating character study. She is a master of creating fully fleshed characters and bringing them to life. I feel like I know most of the characters in the Casual Vacancy, and I don’t like most of them. This didn't put me off though, I devoured the book, and I'm still wandering around in a sort of literary hangover. I'm still lost in Pagford, still thinking about the characters and reluctant to start anything else.