Potter fans aren’t gonna like this one…
Not to say it’s badly written—far from it. It’s a series of character sketches done from many individual viewpoints, done in a thoughtful, convincing fashion. But it’s dark. More to the point, it’s everything Potter wasn’t—serious, contemporary, adult, depressing.
Harry Potter is the seven-book adventure of a boy wizard—a large epic that even at its darkest moments of the final book remains whimsical. Fred and George crack wise in the heat of battle, Harry interrupts Ron and Hermione’s kiss with a protest at their timing. Readers became truly invested in the characters, so much so that Dobby’s final moments and Luna’s poignant goodbye produced actual tears.
This single volume cannot provoke the same level of emotion. True, it’s the story of how everyone in a small town reacts to the passing of one man, emphasizing everyone’s interconnectedness. Each character appears in the lives of others, offering clashing perspectives that are especially true to life as each conceals secrets and woes from the others, even their closest friends. Characters are selfish, fallible, frail, and all too human. But we can’t become quite as invested as before. Not only do we lack the seven books of discovery, but these characters lack the childlike wonder, love, and pureheartedness that made readers fall for tormented Snape, conflicted Draco, woefully clumsy Neville. The casual Vacancy’s characters feel relatable, but edgier—humanity’s petty, abusive, neglectful, worst characters rather than its best…In a book of Dursleys, whom would we love?
Rowling has thrown herself into adult literary fiction wholeheartedly, with the mild satire and heavy misery and dissatisfaction with modern life that characterizes so much of the genre. Teens tormenting one another on Facebook underscores how modern this fictional space is—no more gothic locale where cellphones and computers won’t function. If Harry Potter, as many think, is a nostalgic gateway to similar times, this is the stark, unadorned present. In Harry Potter, even the cruelly-meant teasing coasted under a lighthearted layer—“Mudblood” was a made-up racial epithet only used by awful Slytherins, and Hermione shrinks her buckteeth before the dance. But this book offers racial epithets blurted by even the more sympathetic characters, and a teenage girl tormented daily with Facebook postings of circus freaks to emphasize her embarrassing facial hair. Abuse of several kinds permeates the story, from bullying to harmful and neglectful parents ridden by anger and drug abuse. Unlike in Harry Potter, characters’ hands are tied and there’s no clear right answer–There’s no Hagrid to swoop Harry off to wizard school here. Harry Potter teaches that the darkest of evil can be defeated with a pure heart, that those who love us never leave us. Casual Vacancy suggests the opposite—that in our troubled world no heroes will step forward to defend us, that we are merely a conglomeration of conflicting personalities that damage one another and rub other people raw. It’s a world without Harry the Hero…or perhaps he died on the first page.
Is it a good read for fans of literary fiction? Probably. But as shown through the above review, Potter comparisons are inevitable, and this book will suffer by comparison. We want heroics, not reality.