BOOK REVIEW: The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling



How does Harry Potter’s creator fare with her very first novel for adults?

By Chloë Hamilton

I was eight when my mum bought me a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by new author J K Rowling. It was then that my ten-year long love affair with Harry’s world began. 

I fanciest the pants off Harry, I wanted to be best friends with Hermione and I wanted to live with the Weasleys. Not receiving a letter inviting me to Hogwarts when I reached my 12thbirthday was a devastating blow. Many a July morning was spent waiting for the postman to deliver my next fix of wizardry, until 2007 when I was forced to bid an emotional farewell to the characters that had seen me through my childhood.

When I heard Rowling was bringing out a book for adults, my first thought was one of confusion. My favourite childhood author writing about sex, drugs and rock and roll felt as out of place as running into a teacher in a pub. 

So it was with trepidation and a burning curiosity that I waited outside Waterstones last Thursday to buy The Casual Vacancy.

At 9:30am I was first into the shop to bag my £10 copy of the hotly-anticipated novel. Slightly embarrassed at appearing over-eager, I pretended to browse the shelves, before grabbing the book and paying as quickly as I could. (It’s actually priced at £20 but, being a skint student, I had scouted out the best deal.)

The cover is undoubtedly more grown up. Gone is the bespectacled hero and his teenage friends. In their place is a simple drawing depicting a cross on a voting slip. Slightly boring, but I was never one to judge a book by its cover. 

My first impression of the book was how distinctly ‘un-magical’ it is. In Harry Potter, Rowling introduces her readers to an entirely new world, full of spells, potions and Quidditch.

Instead, The Casual Vacancy is set in the fictional village of Pagford, which sounds like it could be twinned with Hogsmeade, but is actually somewhere in the West Country. In Pagford, everyday Muggles go about their everyday business.

The plot is simple. Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. A battle to fill his empty seat on the council ensues. Coming from a tiny village in Cambridgeshire, where small town politics are alive and well, the plot felt strangely familiar. 

Unfortunately, the book reads badly. Harry Potter escaped the wrath of the critics because its plot was so engaging. But The Casual Vacancy’s plot is not enough to distract from its author’s poor writing. Some extracts made me cringe. 

Yes, The Casual Vacancy considers adult concepts, like politics, prejudice and poverty, but these concepts were also addressed in Harry Potter (only with a dragon or two to boot.) It feels like Rowling tried too hard to pick a grown up topic to write about and mislaid the thing that kept everyone reading in the first place, the story.  

I’m not sure why she ventured into adult literature but I hope it wasn’t just to prove that she could. She’s a much better author when she takes adult themes and weaves them into a children’s book. In Harry Potter, Rowling skillfully encouraged children to consider moral and political concepts by disguising them in a fairy tale. Almost like giving a dog a tablet hidden in a Mars Bar. 

So while I admire her bravery in writing The Casual Vacancy, Harry Potter was cleverer, wittier and in some ways more grown up.

J K, if you’re listening, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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