If it were possible to approach the subject of JK Rowling without discussing her previous work, I would do so. To mention the name “Harry Potter” is to bring up an entire slew of associations, whether positive, negative, or bored-to-tears indifferent. As a disclaimer, I must admit that I am a fan – the kind who always appreciated Rowling’s works on its own merits, first and foremost, and only then pinned a Hufflepuff badge on my backpack. I was, and still am, a devotee of the seven-book series, but I dislike the films, and stay away from the vast and – to me – frightening world of online fan-fiction.
It is as a writer rather than a celebrity that Rowling became a published author, and she wrote the Harry Potter books in a particular style. Her voice has always been uniquely hers, from the very first particularly, peculiarly, English sentence of the first book – “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first novel since she completed the Harry Potter series and its various offshoots, was promoted, disappointingly, as if it was an extension of the HP universe. The books filled the entire wall of shelves behind the Waterstones cash registers here in Oxford, the novel was promoted and given lengthy reviews in major magazines and newspapers, and it was generally treated as if it was going to be another merchandisable opportunity for the likes of Universal Studios and Sony (who each, respectively, runs the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, USA and the online virtual book-world Pottermore). While the reviews were very mixed, running the gamut from glowing to scathing, the book was generally treated as the work of celebrity rather than what it was: a first literary novel by an author who was (as she admitted to being) both proud of her book and wary of its reception.
Rowling has now proven that her voice is consistent. The language in the novel is simple and straightforward, while blindsiding the reader here and there with a brilliant observation or description that is shocking in its apparent clarity. Her vivid English-isms aren’t lost either: each section of the book opens with a quaint quote from a 17th century book of parish-council rules.
What is most amazing of all, however, is Rowling’s heretofore hidden talent for writing some truly despicable real-world characters. It is wonderful, exhilarating and endearing. A discussion that is still common in the writing and publishing world is the difference between men and women authors and their aptitude in writing unsympathetic characters. Women are often said to write too “nicely”, resulting in books of lesser merit or critical acclaim. Rowling strikes a blow for women authors everywhere in not softening her novel just because she is known also to be a children’s author (although, as an aside, anyone who claims that the Harry Potter books are for children may want to take a second look at them).
The Casual Vacancy’s characters are unflinchingly, unapologetically, and unabashedly nasty, one after another: Samantha, a middle-aged woman who ends up snogging a fifteen-year old boy while drunk at a party; Howard, the morbidly obese town bully who touches Samantha’s ass every time he sees her, though she’s married to his son; Simon, who buys stolen goods and hits his children and his wife but still thinks he’s one hell of a swell guy; Fats, a middle-class teenager who believes that it’s more ‘real’ to sleep with a girl from the slums he doesn’t actually like, because having a tough life is cool and enviable. Listing the characters like this makes them sound almost ridiculous, but Rowling’s superiority as an author is that each character is absolutely believable and has a motive and reason for acting as he or she does. Though the reader may end up hating them, she also ends up understanding and empathizing with them.
Rowling’s powerful novel deals with big issues – from ambition, loneliness and family to race, addiction and poverty – but it doesn’t shove any moral notions down the reader’s throat and it doesn’t offer idealistic, impossible, solutions. It portrays a slice of reality between its two covers, a story worth telling and worth reading, and, yes, (for those for whom this is the main the draw) it gives the reader the bizarre pleasure of seeing the word “fuck” written many times by the same woman who invented the snitch, butterbeer, and Dobby the house-elf.