Being J.K. Rowling is a trap.
Bear with me: having lived the revolution that Harry Potter caused in children’s literature first-hand and having, like so many others, fallen hopelessly in love with her characters, I too have expectations for Rowling.
However, the hype that has surrounded her most recent publication, an adult fiction novel entitled The Casual Vacancy, is proof of how much weight lies on this author’s shoulders.
Clearly, should she want to write about anything other than Hogwarts, broomsticks and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, the literary world will undoubtedly go wild, with critics bracing themselves in anticipation.
So, understandably, it’s with a bit of reserve and much trepidation that I, like millions of others across the world, picked up a copy of The Casual Vacancy at my local bookstore on Sept. 27.
Three days later, my previously pristine copy of Rowling’s book was torn, crumpled and decorated by coffee stains, having been lugged around virtually everywhere with me for 72 hours; coffee shops, metro rides and dinners included.
The book was extremely good, in the dark, sarcastic, incredibly realistic way that books can be good in our decade. Rowling had me engrossed in a story that I would never have believed to be that captivating. Let’s be honest – the idea of a book revolving around the sudden death of a council member in a tiny, unknown village in England isn’t exactly everyone’s dream premise. But the citizens of Pagford, the tiny village in question, are fascinating as we glimpse their everyday lives unraveling in the throes of tragedy.
The novel starts out with councilman Barry Fairbrother passing away suddenly on the eve of his wedding anniversary. Initially shocked with grief, the citizens of Pagford quickly move on to replacing him on council and a controversial election ensues. On the other side, the previous ally of the deceased finds herself more alienated than ever. And so, as we flip the pages, tensions and secrets arise, in a way that readers will find covertly echoes a combination of Desperate Housewives and Shameless.
Rowling does a marvelous job of showing us, yet again, that she has a profound understanding of human existence. Humor is doused with crudeness, and the combination is a satire of our time that leaves us wanting more. I found myself blitzing through chapters, anticipating the slew of revelations to come, the same way I had dashed through the last Harry Potter book, wanting to know if Voldemort had prevailed. It’s suspense, but not in the classic sense; there’s simply a more refined sense of excitement to be had.
Having skimmed the media on the topic, it goes without saying that I’ve read my share of reviews on The Casual Vacancy. Needless to say, not many of them are flattering. Negative reviews mainly criticize the book’s overall grittiness and the fact it reveals a relatively ugly side of social reality. Obviously, for anyone having read the Harry Potter series, this is an unexpected (and maybe even unpleasant) wake-up call. The charm that surrounded Hogwarts and its inhabitants, easy-going, comical characters that we would have loved to meet, was addictively pleasant. You’ve been warned: there will be drugs, depression and all-out despair. Does that make the book any less of a page-turner? Not really.