A Not-So-Casual Read

The_Casual_Vacancy The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling (2012)

When I heard J.K. Rowling was coming out with a book for adults, I knew I had to read it. I also knew that it wasn’t going to be anything like our beloved Harry Potter. Even knowing that going in, it was still a tough realization to come to as I was reading the 503 pages of Vacancy. Because it is nothing like Harry Potter, friends.

Rowling’s newest novel focuses in on the fictional small town of Pagford and the complicated relationships of its citizens. In the first few pages of the story, Barry Fairbrother, a particularly influential member of the community, drops dead from a sudden brain aneurism, and the rest of the book leads us through the after-effects of the tragedy. And that’s the extent of the plot.

Without really knowing what this means (similar to how I really don’t know what people mean when they say that British comedies are a certain type of humor, but I nod and pretend I do), this novel feels very contemporary-British to me. I’m pretty sure that’s a thing. Really the only experience I have on this subject is White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, but I have to say, it feels very much like that. Character-driven;  interwoven plot lines; complicated family drama; gritty. In fact, gritty may be an understatement, because this novel has it all: drug addicted parent, child/domestic abuse, rape, unprotected teenage sex (in which the girl wants to get pregnant), affairs, cradle-robbing, self-mutilation, pedophilia…and I could keep going.

Okay, so doesn’t sound like I’m going to give it a good review, right? Well, here’s the thing. Rowling wrote a pretty impressive piece of literature. I think we can all agree that she has a knack for creating a world, down to every minute detail. Her stories are so well planned out, from the beginning to the very end, that even though she gives you the clues early on, you still are blind-sided by the climax. And the theme we get in Harry Potter — that teens can have a profound and real impact on society as a whole — is clearly represented in this volume as well, although the young adult involvement isn’t quite as inspiring as in HP. (The adults are less than inspirational, too.)

So I’m torn. Did I like it? Not really. It took me forever to get through, and it left me unsettled and mildly depressed. But am I glad I read it? Absolutely. If you like contemporary British lit (whatever that means), you’ll probably find this worthwhile, but just don’t expect the glowy, picturesque resolution we get from that rather disastrous but satisfying HP epilogue.

Well done, but still disappointing it isn’t set in Hogwarts: 2 stars.

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