By Hoss Dossett
With a narrative style reminiscent of The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a breakout novel has been circulating and causing dissension among critics and fans alike. Questions concerning the pace of the novel, the authenticity of the language, and the lack of tween magic are springboards for heated discussions. Yes, J.K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, which was published on the 27th of September this year, is something to be talked about.
But on what side of the fence will you fall? Critics such as Michiko Kakutani, of The New York Times, describe a story that “is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing — it’s dull,” while Kevin Nance of The Chicago Sun Times praises the novel for its honesty, writing that Rowling has clearly chosen “to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be.” Still other critics call the book “stunning” and “brilliant;” on the other hand, Theo Tait of The Guardian writes, “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all.”
Indeed, it is not bad at all. In fact, the banality that Kakutani describes can only be understood to be a flailing critique from a person who simply did not connect with the book, which happens; people rarely come to a universal agreement on the originality, beauty, or truth of an art piece. That being said, while certain critics were not touched, I was.
Rowling’s creation and subsequential exploration of Pagford, the small-town community which is at the center of The Casual Vacancy, is honest, gritty, and (in direct contrast with what certain commentators have written) full of hope. The story opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a council member for the city of Pagford, and it moves forward by looking at how his death affects all of the people he had impacted in life: Krystal, the poverty-stricken teenager living at home with her drug-addicted mother; Howard, head of the council and Barry’s largest opposition in the matter of “the Fields” (read the book!); or Sukhvinder, the ignored, hurting daughter of Barry’s greatest ally on the Council.
Every character (there are many more than just the aforementioned three) has his or her role to play in this story that features not so much a specific character, but the entire city of Pagford, as the protagonist. Throughout the novel, the reader comes to identify with the hope that the city can grow – or at least survive – despite the selfishness within each individual. Therefore, the story seems to be a depiction of humanity in general: we are all selfish, but we are all fighting for a world in which hope prevails and selflessness can actually work. We recognize moments in which this possibility is blindingly obvious and achievable, but those moments fade quickly. That is the truth within Rowling’s story of lost people who just can’t seem to find hope.
Now, I must reiterate that these are very lost people (aren’t we all?). Some readers may find that the language and content of The Casual Vacancy are quite graphic. Heavy language is used frequently and there are scenes of sex and violence described without reserve. Yet, I contend that the writing is authentic. I have known people whose lives are similar to the characters’ lives. Therefore, instead of shielding ourselves from a very real world, I believe we should learn about it and then engage with it.
So, where critics see failure, or monotony, or morally depraved content in Rowling’s novel, I see truth. Yes, the story is about some pretty despicable people. Yes, there are instances of bitter, selfish irony that make the reader cringe. Yes, there are parts of the novel that are graphic and might grind against the convictions of certain audiences. And no, Harry Potter does not rise from the dead and save the day – or does he?