Greetings Brave Adventurers,
What, you may ask, is a review of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy doing on a site that revels in all things Fantasy? You do know it’s not a Harry Potter book, right?
Yes, I do. And I did before I read the book too.
In fact, I was surprised how many Goodreads reviews expressed their disappointment that The Casual Vacancy did not have Harry Potter in it. This is nothing like Harry Potter. It is adult fiction. It is not fantasy. And I read The Casual Vacancy knowing this.
So what was my reasoning? I’ve got this theory about us genre writers. I think that we are a different breed, that the skills we have are particular to us. Genre writers, and most especially fantasy writers, build amazing worlds and transport readers there. It’s about getting across the most fantastical ideas, explaining the inexplicable, filling the reader’s head with vivid images of things they have never seen. To do this, you need to use words well, and simply. Words for the fantasy writer are like a soundtrack to your favorite movie; they build the mood, they convey the emotion, but if you notice the words or the music it’s probably because it’s not very well done. It’s the reason were not considered ‘literary’. It’s the reason Stephen King moaned that no-one ever asks him about the language of his novels.
What does this have to do with The Casual Vacancy? My theory before reading is that Rowling is a genre writer through-and-through. And after reading, I feel that I can firmly say that she is.
The plot of The Casual Vacancy follows the lives of the local inhabitants of a small English town, and the undercurrents, pettiness and tensions which ensue after the death of a councilman. Rowling gets us achingly close to the characters, not just inside their heads, but with every flaw and foible exposed for us to see and snigger at.
The themes are ones Rowling would be familiar with. I wonder how much of the junkie mother was depicted from her own experiences of living in council flats. Rowling has mentioned her distress at accepting dole payments as a single mother and throws a mirror on this prejudiced middle-class upbringing in her novel. There are times when this book is shocking, violent and offensive. Rowling writes about the other side of teen life, the one Harry Potter never mentioned – the side with acne, drugs, hormones, sex and rebellion.
Ultimately, though, J K Rowling lacks the subtly of non-genre authors. Her characters become caricatures, the shocking language becomes annoying, the plot gets dragged down with endless inner musings. At times her writing seems clumsy, tripping over heads as she jumps perspectives with wild abandon. It is competent, but not exciting, not spectacular. It all leads me to wonder if this book would stand on its own merits without the name of one of the world’s most famous authors emblazoned on its cover. I think it probably would have been published and then sunk into the literary ocean without so much as a ripple.
Stick to genre fiction, JK. Go back to your roots.
Please, please, please.