I’ve long been an admirer of J.K. Rowling. When you look beyond the insane success of her Harry Potter books, you realize that she’s a spectacular writer with an unsurpassed imagination.
I loved the Potter series for the dozens of inventions and complex characters that Rowlings conjured. In the distance between the books and the movies, I think people forgot just how remarkable a writer and dreamer that she is. Though many of the items in her books were just a half step from reality – the moving images on newspapers and the game of quidditch – it’s her ability to wind up the tension in the plot or develop complex characters that is so admirable. Professor Snape and Moaning Myrtle are two characters that could easily have been one-dimensional, but were much more nuanced as the story progressed.
I read once that Rowlings envisioned writing the Potter novels for adults, but the publisher persuaded her to write the series at a level more suitable to children. And of course, that’s how they marketed it.
We knew she’d write a novel for adults someday, and now we have it: The Casual Vacancy. I didn’t expect to like this novel. It’s hard to compete with something of the magnitude of Harry Potter. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I hadn’t set the bar very high.
The story focuses on a town councilman whose sudden death sets off a battle for his seat, examining the tensions between parents and their children, the rich and the poor, and between friends and acquaintances. Rowling evokes at least one British news story of the 90s, but I’d lost interest long before the book reached that part.
The Casual Vacancy has its moments. The writing is there, and the characters show hints of complexity. It’s the plot that’s missing. In all fairness, I read the first half of the book and skittered through the rest. The tension that drives stories simply wasn’t there for this one, though early on, I had high hopes.
Consider this family’s breakfast table conversation.
“Goes to show, doesn’t it?” he said portentously. “Got to watch yourself.”
That’s wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that’s profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother’s own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied fucker, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.
At this point, as I wonder who to root for, I’m leaning toward the son. What we see of his father, Simon, in the first few pages is entirely unlikeable. So I think he’s picking on the son without reason. Then this:
Simon pointed his knife at his elder son and said, “Oh, and by the way. He’s going to be getting a job. Old Pizza Face there.”
Startled, Ruth turned from her husband to her son. Andrew’s acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek, as he stared down into his bowl of beige mush.
“Yeah,” said Simon. “Lazy little shit’s going to start earning some money. If he wants to smoke, he can pay for it out of his own wages. No more pocket money.”
Ah. Now I understand the source of the rage bubbling under Simon’s surface. Typical parent-teen conflict. Or is it? Read on, and I might change my mind again – maybe I should side with Andrew.
This is the true magic of Rowling’s writing. I just wish it hadn’t faded so early in the novel.
Still, I look forward to her next book for adults. I suspect she’ll find the right mix of subject matter, plot, character, and tension.