Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Filling “The Casual Vacancy”: A Harry Potter Generation Reader Anticipates J.K. Rowling’s New Novel for Adults

by Jacqueline Fauni

For those of us chomping at the bit as we near the highly anticipated release of J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, Ian Parker’s profile of Rowling in The New Yorker may provide some desperately needed fodder until the novel hits bookstores on September 27th. Parker writes at length about the trials and triumphs Rowling faced before and after the conception of the boy wizard on that fateful train ride from Manchester to London in 1990, and intersperses an account of her life with tidbits about her upcoming novel--the premise of which, incidentally, also came to her while in transit (except on a plane).

The Casual Vacancy has been advertised as a black comedy about a small, seemingly idyllic English town called Pagford that erupts into war over who gets to fill the empty seat left by a recently and unexpectedly deceased councilman named Barry Fairbrother. Though the premise is obviously very different from that of the Harry Potter series, Rowling acknowledges a “through-line” in the themes of “mortality, morality... the two things that [she] obsess[es] about.” Parker notes that Barry holds “the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his: tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.” Perhaps, then, as we witness the corruption in Pagford's local election, we may be reminded of Harry’s conflict with the wavering and blinded-by-politics Ministry of Magic.

Parker also notes that many of the key characters in The Casual Vacancy are in their mid-teens, and that “the novel seems most comfortable when it’s with them.” The teenagers in Pagford, however, deal with much more explicit and intensely dark issues than Harry Potter and his classmates did at Hogwarts, including heroin addiction, sexuality, and abuse. Gone are the vague references to Ron Weasley’s unmentionably rude hand gestures and utterances of oaths--those are apparently replaced in The Casual Vacancy by more graphic images and phrases, such as “a used condom glistening in the grass” and “with an ache in his heart and his balls.” Those key distinctions aside, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the coming-of-age-amidst-war dynamic figures prominently in Rowling’s new novel, as the plight of the angst-ridden teen is one that Rowling speaks to most compellingly as well as personally, having struggled through particularly unhappy teen years after her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

One point in Parker’s profile that especially resonated with me was Rowling’s recollection of a girl she met in a shop who told her, “You were my childhood.” As a bookworm whose middle-grade through young adult years were mostly shaped by the Harry Potter books, I grew up right alongside Harry and his friends, and learned important lessons about love, friendship, and courage along with them. After I read the very last page of The Deathly Hallows, I felt a void I’m sure was felt by my fellow Potter fans worldwide--a void that cannot be fed by anything like the series we had just finished, because there can be nothing that compares to the wonder and the once-in-a-lifetime experience that they were. And even though The Casual Vacancy is written by the very same, wonderful woman who gave us the Potter series, it is probably a misguided hope to expect it to fill “the casual vacancy” left by the end of the Harry Potter books.

Rowling’s new story promises to be a wildly different animal--which is not necessarily a bad thing, or a reason to readily dismiss it. I will always treasure (and revisit, time and again) the magic of Harry Potter's world, and do acknowledge and appreciate the remarkably mature elements in his story, but I am curious about this story Rowling has to tell exclusively to adults, especially now that I am an adult. While I’m sure J.K. Rowling did not time the release of her books to fit my timeline of personal development, it is a happy coincidence that it has turned out so, and I look forward to the continuation of that coincidence and to the opportunity presented by this new chapter in her life as an author, and perhaps a new chapter in my life as a reader.

And I will try my best to follow along without making (too many) Harry Potter comparisons.

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