Lambasted in the early reviews …
… I was not immediately disposed to read JK Rowling’s new “adult” novel, The Casual Vacancy, largely because I had never been inspired to read any of her previous works in the Harry Potter series. But one lone voice of support changed my mind; it suggested an unusually sympathetic and accurate depiction of a social worker’s life, even that it might be worthy to make it on to a “social work reading list”. So now I’m intrigued and decide it might be worth giving it a go.
Those more familiar with Rowling’s Harry Potter series had criticised this new work on several levels. The secrecy that preceded the publication was seen as evidence that everyone in the publishing side knew this was an inferior piece of writing by a children’s author who had overstretched her writing skills by trying to break into the adult market, as if children’s writing was easier. And some reviewers went to great lengths to point out that this was a bad novel in every way. Many were concerned that in associating the writer with Harry Potter might lead to some children reading what would clearly be an unsuitable book for children, littered with swearing and sexual references. Clearly there was a high level of disapproval.
To me this was just another novel. Whether I would find it captivating, barely interesting, or tedious, I would find out for myself.
“A big novel about a small town …. it is the work of a storyteller like no other” it says on the inside of the jacket. Within the first few pages I had to agree. I was soon captivated by the evolving personalities in the little town of Pagford. Rowling had clearly gotten under the skin of the secret lives of so many people living in small towns, villages, cities, everywhere people live in close proximity. The crumbling relationships, held together only by their public faces, were thrown into confusion by the events that follow the sudden death of popular local councillor Barry Fairbrother; relationships that struggled on as Rowling gives a ‘behind closed doors’ glimpse at the lives of the town’s characters. Rowling clearly has a good grasp of the intricacies of human nature as she reveals characters each and every reader almost certainly knows in some form or other in their families, their work, their schools, their own lives. Perhaps it is that which made this novel such uncomfortable reading for those critical reviewers: to see their own lives laid bare before them when they were more familiar with the fantasies of Harry Potter.
Of the criticisms of a popular and well known children’s author writing in an adult genre, there is certainly some swearing, but it is contextual, and there are allusions to sex but without graphic descriptions. Should a child accidentally pick up this book thinking it will be like Harry Potter they are unlikely to get as far as any references to sex before they put it down, the reading age of the text being beyond their natural understanding and interest. There are drugs, there is filth and squalor, there is child neglect, abuse, bullying. Those who have seen it in their work will believe it; those who have experienced it will recognise it; others may find it hard to imagine the conditions in which some people live. Another reason, perhaps, for those critical reviews. They’ve not been there. They’ve not got the t-shirt.
Of Kay, the child protection social worker, I will only say that in my work experience I have met her, sometimes I have been her, I have seen her caseload, I have seen the pressures she is under, walking the fine line between guaranteed safety and acceptable risk, struggling to resolve her own domestic, relationship and parenting challenges as she realises that in a small town like Pagford there is not the anonymity she had been used to working in London and people really do know everyone else in the town.
And yes, it should be recommended reading.
J K Rowling, The Casual Vacancy, 2012, London, Little Brown