The first comments concerning Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel suggests that it’s light years away from glowing. In other words, no magic wand, levitations or incantations anywhere from cover to cover. Instead, the novel is filled with a variety of people like Harry’s aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley: self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories seemed only interesting to the author that created them. It’s easy to understand why Ms. Rowling wanted to try something different after spending a decade and a half inventing and complicating the fantasy world that Harry and company inhabited, and one can only admire her gumption in facing up to the overwhelming expectations created by the global phenomenon that was Harry Potter.
Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull. The novel — which takes place in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford, and chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother — reads like an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like “Peyton Place” with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives. This of course is one view. There are some that felt the book is well worth the read, yet more than expected were not exactly anticipated.
“The Casual Vacancy” is certainly not a book for children: suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide percolate through its pages; there is a sex scene set in a cemetery, a grotesque description of a used condom (“glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”) and alarming scenes of violent domestic abuse. The novel contains moments of genuine drama and flashes here and there of humor, but it ends on such a disheartening note with two more abrupt, crudely stage-managed deaths that the reader is left stumbling about with whatever is the opposite of the emotions evoked by the end of the “Harry Potter” series.
Instead of an appreciation for the courage, perseverance, loyalty and sense of duty that people are capable of, we are left with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity. Instead of an exhilarating sense of the mythic possibilities of storytelling, we are left with a numbing understanding of the difficulty of turning a dozen or so people’s tales into a story with genuine emotional resonance.
Other authors have created portraits of small-town life that capture the texture of ordinary lives with great depth of emotion. This, alas, is not the case here. Whereas the Harry Potter universe was as richly imagined and intricately detailed as Tolkien’s Middle Earth or L. Frank Baum’s Oz, Pagford seems oddly generic — a toy village, in which rooftops pop off to reveal adultery, marital discord and generational conflict among the tiny toy people. It’s as though writing about the real world inhibited Ms. Rowling’s miraculously inventive imagination, and in depriving her of the tension between the mundane and the marvelous constrained her ability to create a two-, never mind three-dimensional tale.
As “The Casual Vacancy” trundles along and Ms. Rowling starts grappling with the consequences of her characters’ darker secrets, the narrative gathers momentum, but it takes a lot of pages to get there. In the meantime we are treated to tedious descriptions of the political squabbles exacerbated by Barry Fairbrother’s death and historical accounts of class tensions in insular Pagford — most notably a face-off between one faction that is opposed to a public housing project and a clinic for addicts, and another that has a sense of duty toward the less fortunate. It’s a subject with the potential to reverberate with an American audience — given the current battles between Republicans and Democrats over the role and size of government — but as laid out here it’s oddly bloodless and abstract.
Rowling’s publisher, Little Brown, and booksellers seem confident the tome will prove a bestseller, the mad rush and predawn lines that awaited some of the Potter releases were not in evidence.
Early sales seemed slow at a central London branch of the Waterstone’s bookstore chain, where stacks of the hardback novel, with its stridently red and yellow cover, were unwrapped and ready for buyers.
Waterstone’s spokeswoman Debs Tilley said preorders had been “fantastic,” suggesting Rowling commands a legion of devoted readers willing to give her new venture a try, even if they’re not beating down the doors to the store.
“Having known and loved her writing for the past 15 years, the world has been waiting to see what she did next,” Tilley said. ” ‘The Casual Vacancy’ has reminded us all just how popular she is and how committed her fans are.”
Store manager Lori Fazio of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, told CNN that interest in the novel had been building for months, with lots of advance orders. “People can’t wait for this, for it to finally hit the bookstore,” she said.
While the book is certainly different from Rowling’s previous works, Fazio predicts it will win fans if readers realize it’s “an extreme opposite from Harry Potter” and go into it with an open mind.
Harry Potter is certainly a tough act to follow. The seven-book series sold more than 450 million copies and spawned a multibillion-dollar film franchise.
Details of the new book’s content were kept largely under wraps ahead of its release, with Rowling speaking to only a few media outlets in the United Kingdom and the United States. Those critics lucky enough to get their hands on an advance copy also had to keep their reviews on hold until Thursday.
But one young woman in London told CNN why she’s looking forward to reading it. “I think it will be really interesting to see how J.K. Rowling writes something else that isn’t Harry Potter, that isn’t aimed at children or young people,” she said.
“I’ve heard lots about ‘The Casual Vacancy’ as being a political satire and more of that, so it’s going to be nice to see if she pulls it off.” So far, based on early reviews she and she doesn’t.
In Britain’s The Daily Telegraph newspaper, reviewer Allison Pearson notes Rowling’s use of humor — but also paints a black image of the overall mood. “The Casual Vacancy” is “sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair. One teenager cuts herself to relieve her misery, another commits suicide. Online pornography is described in gynecological detail,” she writes.
“It feels as if the author has unleashed all the swearing, sex and vitriol that have been off-limits to her since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. As for the ending, dear God, it is so howlingly bleak that it makes Thomas Hardy look like PG Wodehouse.”
Other reviewers bandy about big literary names such as George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as they dissect Rowling’s minute grasp of plot and characterization.
The Financial Times calls it “an old-fashioned novel, a thoughtful, angry and densely plotted story in the 19th-century tradition, set in a town in which class and racial divisions run deep.”
Time magazine reviewer Lev Grossman finds much to enjoy in its pages, saying: “What surprised me about ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was not just how good it was, but the way in which it was good.
“I suppose I’d expected a kind of aged-up, magicked-down Harry Potter. … But ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is a different beast entirely. It was not what I was expecting. It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England.”
But posing the question of whether it can ever live up to the hype, the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir says no. “Not unless you want to have more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat,” she writes.
As for Rowling, she told the BBC that she had written the book by choice, rather than necessity, since the success of the Potter series has made her wealthy.
“I had nothing to prove. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I can pay my bills every day, I am grateful for that fact. I don’t need to publish,” she said.
But while the novel was born of an idea that excited her and is “personal in the sense that it deals with broad themes that have affected my life in a very real sense — poverty for example,” Rowling thinks it likely her next book will be for children.
For those yearning for a return to the more familiar territory of Hogwarts, however, the British author has little hope to offer. “It was murder saying goodbye, but I truly — where Harry’s story is concerned, I’m done. Now if I had a fabulous idea, I would do it. But I’ve got to have a great idea.”