Monday, November 26, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

By J.K. Rowling

For those quick to make comparisons between J.K. Rowling's new adult debut and the cultural monolith that is the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy could not be more different from Harry Potter. There is no magic to be found in The Casual Vacancy. Quite apart from the fantastical veneer that made even the darkest moments of Harry Potter magical, The Casual Vacancy portrays reality with the unforgiving zoomed-in hyper-clarify of high-definition. Ostensibly about filling the casual vacancy left by the sudden premature death of parish councilman Barry Fairbrother, the story more substantively concerns itself with the occupants of Pagford (a small, idyllic town in the British countryside), their private lives and their politics.

The Casual Vacancy is an unromantic group portrait of small town British life; it is British (and Western) society in microcosm. From death to disease to addiction to bullying to the hardships of marriage and the trials of teenage-hood to psychological troubles to petty self-serving local politics, JKR tackles just about everything that might hide behind the picturesque doors of countryside cottages. She unearths the big problems eating away at the fabric of an outwardly charming small town (and, extrapolating, the society that subsumes it), and she does so with tight, engaging, and creative descriptive language that as an aspiring writer I could only admire in awe. Her characters, as usual, are three-dimensional, interesting, and well-crafted. And the plot, while not reaching the riveting, can't-put-it-down enthrallment of the Harry Potter series, marches along at a steady pace to reach the final dramatic and unexpected, yet satisfying, conclusion.

Though I can't pretend it's not jarring, at first, to find swearing instead of spell-casting, drug-using instead of potion-making, you grow used to it; eventually the swear words, like the spells and other magical lingo, stop being jarring and become just the language of the story, a language the reader achieves fluency in as naturally as the magical dialect of Harry Potter. Each instance of harsh adult reality that shocks at first soon stops catching you short; after a while you accept these divergences from the reassuring voice of the Harry Potter books and become - just as you were with Harry Potter - immersed in the story. It helps that I can fully understand why she chose to embark on such a departure from the fantasy of Harry Potter and flex her story-telling muscles in a completely new and opposite manner. I can see it being a case of wanting to prove herself a versatile writer to herself as much as to any naysayers who might've had her pegged as one genre wonder, or an exclusively children's author, or an out of control instance of beginner's luck, or whatever other ridiculous things people come up with to try to belittle the phenomenon that is Harry Potter by trying to squeeze it into some contrived, constrictive box. That said, due its grittiness and frequent use of profanity, The Casual Vacancy won't be for everyone. Especially those expecting something with the charm and positivity of the Harry Potter series.

The Casual Vacancy, although not going to worm its way into a place next to Harry Potter in my heart, does its job as a sophomore (in terms of being a distinct work) debut. It reaffirms what devoted fans already knew without question: JKR is a Talent.

Comment questions: Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If not, why? If so, what did you make of the dramatic departure, the swearing and the grittiness? 

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