J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: We’ve Read It, Here’s What We Thought | Entertainment | TIME.com
It’s not really possible to open The Casual Vacancy without a lot of expectations both high and low at the same time crashing around in your brain and distorting your vision. I don’t know if it’s possible or even desirable to avoid them. I know I had a lot of, let’s call them feelings when I opened the book (which happened on Saturday morning; don’t ask; I work for the military-industrial-entertainment complex, let’s just leave it at that). I have spent many, many hours reading Rowling’s work. I am a known Harry Potter fan.
I also know enough literary sabermetrics to know that the odds of the book being good were not short. A lot of young adult authors, great ones, have tried their hands at literary fiction, and not a lot of them have succeeded. Not even Roald Dahl could switch-hit, and not for lack of trying. All the available evidence suggests that it’s just a different kind of talent. The most successful example I can think of is T.S. Eliot writing both The Waste Land and also Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. And that’s not even a very good example.
But after about ten pages of The Casual Vacancy I began to forget about all that stuff, and online rumors about how the book was amazing or awful or had lots of sex in it. I forgot about how I had three days to write a review of a 500-page book. I forgot about everything except the pages in front of me. Because I had come under the spell of a great novel.
What surprised me about The Casual Vacancy was not just how good it was, but the way in which it was good. I suppose I’d expected a kind of aged-up, magicked-down Harry Potter, something that showcased the same strengths the Potter books do: Rowling’s meticulous plotting, her inventiveness, her love of mischief, her likeable characters, her knack for visual spectacle. I also expected it to showcase her weaknesses, because all writers have them. Yes, I’m a fanboy, but I still think the Potter books have too many adverbs in them, and not enough sex.
But The Casual Vacancy is a different beast entirely. It was not what I was expecting. It’s a big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England, rich with literary intelligence and entirely bereft of bullshit, and if it weren’t for Rowling’s stringent security measures it would or at least should have contended for the Booker Prize. This is a deeply moving book by somebody who understands both human beings and novels very, very deeply. It’s as if Rowling were an animagus, except that instead of turning into a stag or a dog or whatever she transformed into Ian McEwan.