'The Casual Vacancy': Adult content shows we're not at Hogwarts anymore(Read article summary)
J.K. Rowling's new book for adults is highly anticipated, and adult content in the books shows it's no Potter do-over, though similar themes echo in 'Vacancy.'
And third and fourth, it seems. The once-single mother who survived on welfare, then struck platinum-status with her seven-book series on the magical world of Harry Potter has reinvented herself again, this time as a novelist for an entirely new audience ‚Äď adults.¬†
Rowling‚Äôs post-Harry era begins Sept. 27 with the release of ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy.‚ÄĚ The new novel is a 512-page tale of class warfare, morality, and small town politics set in an idyllic fictional English village.
The question on everyone‚Äôs mind: Whether Rowling can successfully crossover from her stratospherically triumphant reign as a children‚Äôs author and creator of the 450-million-selling Potter books, which made her net worth almost $900 million and set the bar for forthcoming books frighteningly high, to well-received adult novelist.
This much is clear: ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy‚ÄĚ is no ‚ÄúHarry Potter‚ÄĚ and Rowling, thankfully, makes no apologies for this decidedly different track. Set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the book begins as a ‚Äúrural comedy of manners‚ÄĚ that builds into a portrayal of class warfare, strewn throughout with treatises on social welfare. Following the death of Pagford council member Barry Fairbrother, the well-heeled town is pitched into a divisive battle about its connection to Fields, a neighboring town characterized by its public housing and poverty. Historically, Pagford extended a hand to Fields ‚Äď children from Fields could attend primary school in Pagford (‚Äúa place of flower baskets and other middle-class comforts) and the town also ran a drug-treatment clinic that served many in Fields. But with the death of council member Fairbrother, Pagford‚Äôs ‚Äúanti-Fields faction sees an opportunity to rid Pagford of this burden.‚ÄĚ
After reading the 512-page novel and interviewing the famously reserved Rowling, writer Ian Parker shared his thoughts in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker.¬†
‚ÄúWithin a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children,‚ÄĚ Parker writes. ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy,‚ÄĚ after all, is a tale of ‚Äúclass warfare set amid semi-rural poverty, heroin addiction, and teenage perplexity and sexuality.‚ÄĚ
‚Äú‚Ä¶But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. ‚ÄúThe Causal Vacancy‚ÄĚ describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother ‚Äď who dies in the first chapter but remains the story‚Äôs moral center ‚Äď had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his ‚Äď tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.‚ÄĚ
Even Rowling found similar themes. ‚ÄúI think there¬†is¬†a through-line,‚ÄĚ the author told Parker of the New Yorker. ‚ÄúMortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.‚ÄĚ
But, by most accounts, the similarities end there. For those accustomed to Rowling‚Äôs more traditional, buttoned-up children‚Äôs fare, ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy‚ÄĚ is most certainly not that.
There‚Äôs this: ‚ÄúThe leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.‚ÄĚ And this, about a lustful little boy who sits on a school bus ‚Äúwith an ache in his heart and in his balls.‚ÄĚ
Some have asked Rowling whether she felt some responsibility for her band of youthful fans who grew up reading Harry Potter and would now, surely pick up ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThere is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children‚Äôs babysitter or their teacher,‚ÄĚ Rowling told the New Yorker. ‚ÄúI was always, I think, completely honest. I‚Äôm a writer, and I will write what I want to write.‚ÄĚ
Following the unprecedented success of her Potter series, it would have been easy for Rowling to continue writing Potter adventures, or at least, more children‚Äôs books. With this new adult novel, she drummed up the courage to branch out and take a risk.
Writes the New Yorker‚Äôs Parker, ‚ÄúI asked her if publishing the new book made her feel exposed. ‚ÄėI thought I‚Äôd feel frightened at this point,‚Äô she said. ‚ÄėNot just because it‚Äôs been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter‚ÄĒanything‚ÄĒwas going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I‚Äôm honest. It‚Äôs not the place I‚Äôm happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‚ÄėThe Casual Vacancy,‚Äô I kept saying to myself, ‚ÄėYou‚Äôre very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don‚Äôt have to publish it.‚Äô And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you‚Äôre Salinger.‚Äô‚ÄĚ¬†
‚ÄúAuthors, and especially successful authors, are expected to keep producing more of the same,‚ÄĚ writes the UK‚Äôs Telegraph. (The curse, if you will, of the Harry Potter phenomenon.) ‚ÄúTo change genres can upset their fans.‚ÄĚ¬†
In an autobiography A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame complained ‚Äúthat the artist who has early success with a painting of a policeman is expected to paint policemen forever,‚ÄĚ as the New Yorker writes. ‚ÄúIf you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.‚ÄĚ Although Milne is best known for his children‚Äôs books centered on that lovable bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, he attempted at various points in his career to explore all genres, including sketches, plays, mysteries, novels, short stories, even war pamphlets ‚Äď with mixed success. ‚ÄúAs a discerning critic pointed out,‚ÄĚ Milne wrote, ‚Äúthe hero of my latest play, God help it, was ‚Äėjust Christopher Robin grown up.‚Äô So that even when I stop writing about children, I still insist on writing about who were children once.‚ÄĚ
Though we have yet to get our hands on a copy of ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy,‚ÄĚ we wager to say Rowling has already accomplished something remarkable in having the courage to walk away from the ‚Äúeasy success‚ÄĚ of another Potter novel or even another children‚Äôs book and leap into a new genre. With ‚ÄúThe Casual Vacancy,‚ÄĚ she is attempting to escape the curse that accompanies any smash success.
As we page through this new, and no doubt very different piece of the Rowling canon, we‚Äôll do our best not to superimpose upon every second character a certain beloved boy wizard we once knew. Because whatever Fitzgerald said, everyone deserves a second act ‚Äď and a fresh read.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.