So I just finished the new J.K. Rowling. Let me get right to the point: I rather liked it.
Many people have come into the bookshop to rag on Rowling (alliteration, fun!). Ok, they probably didn’t come in specifically for that purpose but when they see her book on the counter that’s what they start doing. And they are perfectly entitled to their opinions! But I feel like the J.K. Rowling thing is only partly valid criticism and partly tall poppy syndrome. [Full disclosure: I think Harry Potter is the freaking best. If you disagree with that we probably can’t be friends.] Lots of the people lining up to insult Rowling find fault with her writing. Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think it is actually a problem, this ignores her great plotting, strong characters, engaging and exciting storylines, sense of group dynamics and adorable wizarding puns.
So The Casual Vacancy: it’s centred around a small town council election which provides a prism for examining bigotry, class problems, poverty, cycles of abuse, casual teenage cruelty and general self involved-ness. After the death of charismatic Barry Fairchild, the factions of Pagford try to use the seat opening to achieve their own ends – the establishment family tries to have a council estate rezoned and run a drug clinic out of town while Barry’s friends and a social worker rally to save it. Everyone has their own fears and secrets and everyone is taking sides. Meanwhile their teenage children have their own alliances, antagonisms and tragedies and it all slowly spirals out of control with everything bleeding into everything else.
It takes a little bit to get going. Introducing all the players (and there are many) is a bit laboured but it pays off as you’re left with plenty of three dimensional characters you could imagine coming across in real life. The issues are real, the problems are real and everyone is studiously focused on themselves which makes for some deep exploration of character. I think the teenage characters are done particularly well, with decided empathy. Rowling’s slightly removed and observational style fits well with the setting of rural England but my one issue is that she uses A LOT of similes. Some of them are excellent, here’s my favourite: “Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.” But with so many metaphors floating around it can also be a bit jarring; too often it pulled me out of the story. I feel like an editor could have helped to smooth them over, as well as speeding up the beginning but then that was never going to happen.
Still I really enjoyed the whole experience of The Casual Vacancy. I’ll be very interested to hear some not bitter people’s opinions, if people can stop slamming her just for fun.