When J.K. Rowling announced the release of her first adult novel, I told myself to not have any expectations (obviously, there was no doubt in my mind that I would read it). I told myself to keep an open mind, not to expect any wizards or magic. I was certain that I was prepared, that the day my book arrived my mind would be a blank canvas waiting for J.K. Rowling to paint her new images on.
Still, I got off to a shaky start. I felt drawn to the book, but I had a hard time getting into it. I couldn’t shake the voice in the back of my head that kept trying to find J.K. Rowling as I knew her in it. As I told a friend of mine, it was like looking at Rowling with recently dyed black hair — it was her, and yet, not quite.
The plot was much darker than what I’d been used to — and this is saying something, considering Harry Potter wasn’t exactly a bright and sparkling fairytale filled with rainbows and butterflies. This story, obviously, had no magic in it and the realness of these dark and twisted characters, who could very well have been people from my very own neighborhood, tinged the story with a draining bleakness that was off-putting.
Don’t get me wrong, some of my top favorite books are composed of stories that could break the most optimistic of minds. But that hopelessness I’d felt wasn’t what I had expected going into The Casual Vacancy, proving thus what my mistake was: In spite of my mental preparation months prior to its release, I’d still held some small expectation where J.K. Rowling’s style, as I’d known it so far, was concerned.
I had expected that sparkle to peek through the darkness of the story. After everything Harry and the other characters of the series went through, there were always moments of humor and moments of hope. We were always treated to that quick furtive wink in J.K. Rowling’s prose that would let us know, “Hey, things suck right now, but goodness and light will prevail.”
The Casual Vacancy lacked that and it was strange for me. Somehow, what I was reading and what I was expecting to read wouldn’t concur, and in order to continue, I was going to have to get out of my own head and take the book for its own merit and stop trying to force something into it that simply didn’t belong there. And so, I decided to put the book down and try again at a later date.
When I picked it up again, a couple of months later, with better knowledge of what I was going into, I found I couldn’t stop reading. I became immersed in the story, in the lives of these characters in the same way I had been with not just the Harry Potter books but so many of my other favorite stories. I wanted to know more about them, and with every turn of the page, my feelings for them changed. I liked them, then I hated them, then I liked them, then I hated them.
The Casual Vacancy is a far cry from what the Harry Potter series was, but if you can distance yourself from everything you’ve known J.K. Rowling’s style to be, you’ll find that The Casual Vacancy can stand wonderfully strong on its own.
In this new novel, J.K. Rowling leaves her world of fantasy and hope and descends into our grim day-to-day reality. She brings to life characters who terrify us because they’re those common ordinary people we meet on a daily basis but always wonder about: people who smile on the outside but whose lives are no less cluttered with problems than yours and mine. She delves into the social prejudices, greed, and apathy that weave and connect our lives and the lives of our neighbors, families, friends, and strangers. She touches on issues like drug abuse, addiction, rape, poverty, and domestic abuse — problems that are far more terrifying than twenty Lord Voldemorts simply because of their painful reality.
It is bleak. It is off-putting. But that’s what the novel needs to be for its core message to ring across loud and clear. One molecule of Harry Potter’s hopeful charm and that message might’ve been lost entirely. The Casual Vacancy purposely leaves you with a sense of hopelessness and righteous anger that hopefully can cause us to reflect on our own lives and make us wonder: How are any of us better than any of those fictional characters that are so horribly real and what can we do to be better?
J.K. Rowling’s strength in this new novel remains what it has always been with her past novels: Her ability to conjure up entire worlds had already been established in the Harry Potter books, but this new adult novel proved that there aren’t many authors out there who can create characters quite as realistic and round as she does. When we read her books, we have no illusions about who these people are. The only thing these people in her books don’t do is breathe our air and walk our lands.
Expect no small cast of characters in this book. True to her knack of conjuring up people out of thin air, Rowling has a full house walking around her stage from the very first couple of chapters. This also made it slightly harder to get into the story — with so many new characters being introduced at once, each having their turn at their own point of view, it’s hard to follow along and quickly develop a connection. For those starting to read this book and who may perhaps be experiencing this same problem, I say stick with it. It really does take a bit of time to really start relating to the characters because there are so many, but once you do you don’t regret the, somewhat, dragging start at all.
So, I guess the real question is this: Would I have read this had it been written by an unknown author? To be quite honest, just from the book description itself, probably not. Or at least, it might’ve been at the very bottom of my “To Read” list, but I would honestly be missing out. So, if in some alternate universe I’m refusing to read this book, hopefully, someone or something will come along to help me change my mind.