I confess it. I haven’t been following a lot of news lately. It’s all pretty much consumed by debates and the Presidential election, anyway, right? At least that’s all that I catch on TV news sources, and I haven’t been reading my usual online news sources.
Instead, I have been reading—are you ready for it?—books. I do that every so often. The biggest news in the book world is J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, released September 27. It’s her first book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and if she was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, you know this has to be Big News.
Sadly, The Casual Vacancy doesn’t have anything to do with Hogwarts or Harry or wizards. I say sadly only because I, like millions of other fans, miss Harry and his buds Ron and Hermione. I keep hoping Rowling might renew the series, maybe with a “next generation” type of storyline. I am a Rowling fan, so I was prepared to like The Casual Vacancy anyway. I was eager to read it, despite the The New York Times‘s damning review.
Rowling promised that her next book would be adult—not adult as in arriving in a brown wrapper, although there are plenty of graphic sex scenes and holy fuck, the cursing (seriously, click on this link, you’ll laugh your ass off)!—and she did not lie. The story is most decidedly unwizardly, set in a small English village populated with a bunch of very unmagical characters. The casual vacancy refers to the seat made available on the parish council by the sudden and unexpected death of one of its members. The election of the new council member is the main plot of the book.
Sounds gripping, no? Well, no, not really. This is not a life or death struggle between forces good and evil here. The characters are self-centered, petty, stupid, gossipy, conniving–flawed in about every way imaginable. And that’s just the adults. Their teenage children are a pretty messed up bunch, too. But while not noble or heroic, they are very real and recognizable.
Interestingly, the political divisions of Pagford, the village in the story, are the same as the U.S. faces during this election. Controversy centers on the Fields, a government subsidized housing development just outside Pagford. Many in Pagford resent the Fields being in their jurisdiction, particularly the methodone clinic and Fields children attending Pagford schools. Other Pagford citizens feel they have a duty to help the residents of the Fields achieve a better life. Sound familiar?
This is gritty stuff. There’s domestic violence, drug abuse, sex, mental illness, small-town politics. . . Rowling’s description of a heroin addicted mother is so spot on I wonder if the character is based upon someone she has actually known. The dialogue of her teenage characters, while dismaying, is completely believable.
The reviews for The Casual Vacancy have been mixed. No one is really raving about the book, but the biggest complaint about it seems to be that it’s not Harry Potter. Rowling is criticized for writing a book that is the complete opposite of Harry Potter. It’s not a story of courageous characters beating the odds against (literally) unspeakable evil. It’s not even a particularly hopeful story. In fact, it’s downright depressing. But it’s real. Sometimes I like real, and I can appreciate someone who can express realism as accurately as Rowling does.