I listened to Harry Potter before I read him. I borrowed my older brother's iPod on a 20-hour car trip from Toronto to PEI and, cushioned into the back seat, closed my eyes under my dark glasses and waited for the voices in the ear buds to slowly disintegrate into dreams. They never did. I spent the next several hours fully enthralled, absorbing a world of wizards and talking snakes. I worried deeply that Neville Longbottom would lose his Rememberall and squealed in delight as Ron Weasley defeated the Chess board.
After that, I turned to print and read them all, waiting desperately for the films and latest instalments of the books. Sitting up late at night at university writing papers on Chaucer's ideas on feminism or other arcane topics, I regretted that I hadn't gone to Harvard, where they offer classes on Harry Potter. I was gutted after the final film came out, knowing that it was over; there really was no more to come. That is why I was so excited that the genius behind this fascinating world was coming out with another story in which to become totally lost.
Alas, in The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's focus and originality are what's vacant. I'm sympathetic to the pressures her previous success must have put her under, but this novel doesn't even seem to be written by the same author.
In the Potter series, Rowling created an entire universe over the course of seven novels. Here, in one book, she attempts to create the small town of Pagford and fails. There are far too many major characters and they all suffer from a lack of dimension. It's like rereading a bad paper you wrote in Grade 11. You see a glimpse or two of potential, but ultimately, it doesn't add up.
The actions and reactions are so unbelievable you start to wonder when a wizard is going to jump out, wand in hand, to yell "Stupefy!" It's an awkward collection of typical adolescent issues mixed with blatant social injustices and bad behaviour. Most of the characters could take a lesson on maturity and compassion from a young Draco Malfoy.
The sexual language is so forced it's often cringe-inducing. The Potter books were delicate and respectful of intimacy; remember how we only heard about Cho and Harry kissing? Here there is such an abundance of genitals and masturbation that it's vulgar. Rowling seems so desperate to prove herself as a writer for adults she ends up sounding like a child dropping the F-bomb.
Hogwarts itself was a major character in the Potter series, a school that conjured up the cozy feeling of being tucked in with a good book and a rainstorm outside. Winterdown, the school in The Casual Vacancy, demonstrates how really awful a high school can be. The town, arguably another character in the book, brims with hateful families who interact with each other in a totally implausible way. In real life, some people like their parents; shockingly enough, some people even like their kids.
The conclusion seems slapped on. It forces the reader into finding false inspiration in Rowling's apparent anti-hero. Don't be fooled, this is no Snape situation. Also, Rowling's use of Rihanna's Umbrella. Seriously?