At the start of this summer, I decided to finally read “The Casual Vacancy” by JK Rowling, and I burned through it quickly.
I think it’s a great read, a very angry book about the definition of community in today’s England. It’s well-observed, it’s adult, and it doesn’t pull any punches as it barrels towards a painful, upsetting finish. It is not what you would expect from her, and it suggests that the England of her Potter books is even more of a fantasy construct than one might think.
After all, she wrote a series of books about the coming of age of a powerful boy wizard and, just as importantly, the generation of magicians his own age, all of them shaped by the events of all seven of the books. She did so without ever suggesting more explicit relationships as the kids grew older, hormones kicked in, and they got ready to graduate from Hogwart’s.
The sixteen year olds she wrote in the Potter books and the sixteen year olds she wrote in “The Casual Vacancy” may share certain feelings, but they have no common life experience. One is hard-lived, the other is wholly-insular. One is eyes open social satirist and the other is self-aware children’s fantasist. She gets at some real truths about growing up in the Potter books that don’t need to be explicit. Lord knows, that’s not the point. I don’t need a more adult Potter.
She knew what she was doing with those books and she did it well right to the end. She never got impatient and suddenly cranked up the “grown-up stuff” without warning. From book to book, she knew what she was doing, and she did a great job of showing how Harry’s life is pre-determined for him in so many ways and how hard he works to find his own way in the end, his path to claiming his place in the world and finally standing against everything he fears. She gets the epic fantasy coming of age right, and it resonates with kids growing up for a reason.
Success is a trap, and certainly, for writers, they can end up as part of an assembly line. Stephen King wrote so much and published so often that he ended up with things that simply couldn’t get released without over-saturating the market. Or that was the argument, at least. His decision to publish some books as Richard Bachman was born of necessity. He had things he wanted to put out, books he liked a lot, and he decided to get them into print no matter what. And he pulled it off for a much longer time than Rowling has.
With Rowling, though, I suspect the trap has been more confining than King’s ever was. It’s one thing to simply write too much to publish under one name, but in her case, the problem was that she made her reputation writing books for a young audience. I read “The Casual Vacancy” way after publication, so I’m not sure how the reviews were when it came out. It’s such a departure from what she’d done before that I could imagine it really throwing an audience for a loop, and especially when you consider the unfiltered anger that is evident in the book’s approach. I suspect there were many people who bought the book who were hoping for a little more Harry Potter and a lot less Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”
I haven’t read “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” but what made the publication of the novel by “Robert Galbraith” such a win for her is that the book got great reviews and enjoyed some commercial success on its own merits. Now that the secret is out, the book has enjoyed a huge surge in sales, but Rowling has to feel good about how well it did without her name on it.
The important thing is that Rowling continues to expand her range and that she is encouraged to do the things she wants to do as a writer. After the phenomenal success of the Potter books, she should never feel required to do anything again. She’s earned herself some time to experiment, and I hope she follows her voice to do all sorts of things in the future. I have a feeling we’ve still just seen part of what she can as an author, and I look forward to her expanding our idea of who she is.
“>“The Cuckoo’s Calling” is available now.