The Casual Vacancy, part 1

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Michiko Kakutani, Jan Moir, Sherryll Connelly, and other book reviewers who actually get paid to do this: what the heck, guys? You told me this book was boring. You sneered at the profanity in this book. You called this book socialist propaganda. And you all seemed to be (smugly) shocked that The Casual Vacancy is NOT Harry Potter. What is WRONG with you people? Did you even read the book before deciding what you thought about it?

Criticisms of The Casual Vacancy seem to fall into one of three categories: 1. It’s not Harry Potter (by which people seem to mean either that it is for adults, and definitely NOT for children or even adolescents, or that there is no magic in it.); 2. There’s a whole lot of swearing (so it’s an immoral book); or 3. It’s boring (and therefore a waste of time to read). The critics who say so are out of their minds. The Casual Vacancy might just be the very best book I’ve ever read. I’d like to respond to these three criticisms, and then talk a little bit about my own assertion. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers in this review because I know a lot of people haven’t had time to read this book yet, but I won’t avoid them at the expense of making myself clear. So, be warned.

1. This book isn’t Harry Potter.
No kidding. Every announcement in connection with promoting this book said so. This book is about some deaths that occur in small English parish. It begins with the death of a prominent Councilman, and ends with the death of two people on the opposite end of the social spectrum. This is not insignificant. And while Harry Potter is fairly saturated with death, the deaths in this novel are weightier– primarily because of the realism of this novel. And yes, that’s unlike Harry Potter as well. But ya know what? If you want to read Harry Potter, go read Harry Potter.

My sense is that some of the reviewers who are caught in this stance have pigeonholed Rowling as a children’s book author– by which they mean, not a good writer. That’s a fairly ill-informed stance to publicize, and they should be ashamed of their ignorance and prejudice. If Rowling had published The Casual Vacancy first and then gone on to write HP, these same reviewers would have placed her alongside Michael Chabon or Jonathan Safran Foer and wondered why she was “slumming it” in kids’ lit. (Or maybe not. Professional reviewers seem to be pretty sexist. See: reviews of anything by Jonathan Franzen. So maybe that’s a factor as well.)

But The Casual Vacancy is like Harry Potter in some ways, notably its focus on and empowerment of children and adolescents. One message promulgated by the Harry Potter series is that anyone can stand up to evil, no matter how powerless they might appear. The heroes of Harry Potter were adults and adolescents alike, working together to right wrongs, fight injustice, stop the spread of tyranny, etc.

The Casual Vacancy ends on a much less hopeful note, but in the end, it’s children who are doing the right thing. I want to be careful here not to say that the adolescents are the heroes, because I’m not entirely sure The Casual Vacancy has any heroes. This book is definitely a tragedy, and, like all good tragedies, leaves very few people standing at all, much less standing pristine. Both the children and the adults are cowardly and selfish– the difference being, of course, that one expects such behavior in children.

Like Harry PotterThe Casual Vacancy looks at society as well as individuals and says, “Look, here’s a problem that’s going on right now. If it were you, what would you do about it? And are you so sure this really isn’t your problem after all?” And like Harry PotterThe Casual Vacancy is full of people who genuinely love others, despite the pain and difficulty involved, and is full of people who need to be reminded to love, and, finally, some people who just have no idea what love really is, or are incapable of doing so. The genuine love portrayed in this novel– in the one instance it might be said to exist– is at least as heroic as the saving power of love portrayed in Harry Potter, and twice as heart-breaking.

Next Up: This Book is Full of Swearing, or, Defining Obscenity.

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