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J K Rowling’s 'The Casual Vacancy' is Adult, Dull

By Periscope @periscopepost

Harry Potter author JK Rowling's first post-Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, is out this week. Harry Potter author JK Rowling’s first post-Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, is out this week.

The background

Whomping wizards! Queen of children’s fiction, J K Rowling, famous the world over for her Harry Potter books, has delivered an actual grown up novel called The Casual Vacancy, which apparates onto shelves today. It starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, which leaves behind a vacancy on the Parish Council of Pagford, a West Country town full of snobs and problem families. The vacancy inspires those on the well-heeled side to put in one of their own, and get rid of the hated council estate, known as the Fields. The cast includes a social worker, a school councillor, a deputy head, and Krystal Weedon from the estate. Critics are weighing it up, with some tactfully suggesting that Rowling’s book is not a bad book, and others being really rather disappointed.

The Archers meets Eastenders

“It’s as though The Archers and EastEnders have got muddled up,” said Claire Allfree on Metro. The plot may sound “bleak,” but Rowling is still easy to “gobble down.” It’s “pretty insubstantial,” with a “crude, slightly ersatz quality.” The “satirical potshots … are ebullient, but not exactly subtle,” and there are clichés “on almost every page,” with “a familiar seam of grotesquery.” Adult characters “are often monstrous,” but Rowling is “on more interesting ground with her younger characters.” In fact, “like Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is about adolescents doing battle with dangerous adults.” Alas, Rowling has “clearly set out to write an Important Book. A pity then that it should often feel so bland.”

There’s no magic here

Allison Pearson in The Telegraph sighed: “And so, from the pen that brought you The Leaky Cauldron comes this: “‘His knuckles in her belly as he undid his own flies – she tried to scream and he smacked her across the face – the smell of him was thick in her nostrils as he growled in her ear, ‘F—- shout and I’ll cut yer.’ So much for Hermione Granger.’” The book is “sometimes funny, often startlingly well observed, and full of cruelty and despair.” And the ending is “so howlingly bleak that it makes Thomas Hardy look like P G Wodehouse.” Rowling “summoned a whole generation … to the magic circle of books.” So why did she decide “To break the spell, bewildering fans with this uneven, often harrowing book?” If you want to get a sense of what Pagford is like, remember 4 Privet Drive and its “stifling, smug suburban values.” Whilst Rowling is good at getting under her teenagers’ skin, she can’t do grown ups, and as for politics – well. Better left alone. There’s no magic here.

A novel with a moral purpose

Erica Wagner in The Times said that this book “harks back to a time when fiction had work to do.” Rowling’s “taken it upon herself to revive the idea of a novel as a force for social good.” You might think the plot “sounds a tiny bit dull. You wouldn’t be wrong.” The characters are “constructed to fulfill the author’s purposes,” and “her fictions have little shadow.” Rowling’s “concerned by a world in which the poor are left to fend for themselves … Perhaps it’s no bad thing to be reminded that novels might, once again, do more than simply entertain us.”

It’s not a bad book

The problem with “denial marketing,” said Theo Tait in The Guardian, is that it “creates a slight anti-climax” when it comes to The Casual Vacancy. There are “some superficial excitements” – “taking drugs, swearing, self-harming, having grimy casual sex, singing along to Rihanna,” and there is the “memorable phrase ‘that miraculously unguarded vagina.’” But as a whole it’s “a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel” with inspirations from Elizabeth Gaskell and George Elliot. The cast of Pagford “are mostly hateful Muggles,” meaning that the “book seems doomed to be known as Mugglemarch.” The novel is immersive, with “the claustraphobic horror” being “nicely done.” It’s also “efficiently organised.” But it’s “the prisoner of its conventions,” with a predictable plot that “lurches into melodrama.” The language too “is not quite doing what she wants it do do.” It’s “no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny.”

It’s howlingly dull

Michico Kakutani on The NY Times was not impressed. The book is “so wilfully banal, so depressingly clichéd,” that it’s “not only disappointing – it’s dull.” The novels leaves you “with a dismaying sense of human weakness, selfishness and gossipy stupidity.” 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.” Let’s hope Rowling doesn’t return to Pagford, “but instead moves on to something more compelling and deeply felt in the future.”

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