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 that genre writers are a bit of a different breed, and that our skills are pretty particular. 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 we’re not usually considered particularly ‘literary’ and perhaps the reason Stephen King says that no-one ever asks him about the language of his novels. (Although there are some amazing examples of brilliant writers who cross the boundaries between literary and fantasy – and their books are always spectacular. There are those who are quite definitely literary, like Margaret Atwood, who are still work in the speculative space.)
So what does all this have to do with The Casual Vacancy? My theory before reading is that Rowling is a genre writer through-and-through.While I think she does a deft job with the Casual Vacancy, I would also like to think that genre is still very much a part of who she is, and it is in genre that she really excels.
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 lays every flaw and foible exposed to be seen and sniggered at.
The themes she explores are ones I imagine Rowling would be familiar with. Rowling has mentioned in interviews her distress at accepting dole payments as a single mother and her novel angles a mirror towards the prejudice and privilege of the middle-class. 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.
Although I enjoyed this novel, I felt it occasionally lacked subtly. Her characters totter dangerously close to caricature, the shocking language becomes annoying, and the plot at times gets bogged down with endless inner musings, as she trips over heads with wild abandon. Still, there is something enticing and haunting about this story of selfish, self-absorbed people and the petty lives they live.