Just more than five years ago, famed British author J.K. Rowling printed the final book of the Harry Potter series, and last summer the series’ final film came out on the big screen. On Sept. 27, Rowling published her first novel since the series, “The Casual Vacancy,” which also marked her first foray into the adult novel genre.
Unfortunately, sitting down to read the next novel written by one of literature’s most innovative authors is a difficult task. The best approach to take with the new text is to avoid drawing comparisons with Harry Potter at all costs. Even in this review it is difficult to avoid comparing the new novel and the renowned series.
Set in a small English countryside town called Pagford, the novel introduces what appears to be a standard, idyllic community from the outside, but is actually a town of multiple battles. The competitive nature of the book’s 34 characters provides a network of tension and jealousy. Disputes among characters pit children against parents, husbands against wives and even generation against generation.
The town is shaken when one of the community members, Barry Fairbrother, dies suddenly, leaving a vacant position on the town’s council. A plot begins to unravel as different perspectives react to the news and decide what to make of the opening in the town’s government, a position that will bring out the worst in all the characters.
In a plot that begins with death, and eventually includes suicide, rape, heroin addiction and sexuality, the book is not an ideal bedtime story, nor should it be the next audio entertainment for a family car trip. However, now that most of her Harry Potter audiences have grown beyond that of the young adult generation, Rowling’s book may offer appealing aspects to the same audience cross-section she once entertained.
The community politics, ethical issues and other themes of the novel resonate with today’s reality, particularly as a tight presidential election runs its course in the U.S. The book’s language is descriptive and thoughtfully illustrates what appears to be a civilized society, but is actually a battleground.
A frustrating emotional appeal resonates throughout the story, which is partly what makes it so enticing. “The Casual Vacancy” also creates messages that different readers will interpret through different lenses; the plot lets the reader make sense of the events based on their own moral perceptions. Rather than a standard tale of good versus evil, the varied plights of the characters beg the reader to draw his or her own moral judgments.
“The Casual Vacancy” offers a plot on an opposite extreme of the Harry Potter series, a story extending over the course of seven books. Rowling’s most recent novel tells a darkly intricate and irresistible story within a single text. Her excellent narrative quality is rather extensive, given the length.
Reception toward the book has been quite varied, but as stated earlier, it most likely depends on the reader’s approach. Under a critical lens, the novel is a great read that draws upon seemingly minor issues exaggerated within a town. In comparison to the Harry Potter series, however, the book lacks creative innovation. Comparison between these two texts can lead to a dissatisfying literary experience.
Since the completion of the Harry Potter series, readers have been on an endless search to fill that creative void that was occupied by tales of muggles and wizards. Stephanie Meyer offered vampires and werewolves, and Suzanne Collins had teenagers battle each other to death in a televised sporting event. Now, readers can once again enjoy the genius literary quality of (former) fantasy author J.K. Rowling, in “The Casual Vacancy.”