With the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling managed to capture the hearts and imaginations of so many children. The blog-based charity project ‘Dear Mr Potter’ is all the evidence you could possibly ever need of how her books have inspired and affected fans of the series. It collects the “sometimes funny, sometimes heart-wrenching, always incredible” stories of what Harry Potter has meant to people of all ages.
There are many letters addressed to ‘Mr Dumbledore’ pleading their case in the hope of getting one of the much-coveted acceptance letters to Hogwarts. That, or writing trying to protect other children who are 10 and three quarters, explaining their disappointment at their rejection, and upon mature reflection now that they’re the grand old age of 12, explaining how important it is he gets some more muggle-borns in on this magical action.
What made Rowling’s books so magical wasn’t necessarily the magic. Her books were so intricately written that she painted a world you couldn’t help but imagine yourself in. Every tiny detail was thought of already so you never needed to imagine what Harry’s world was like, you merely had to place yourself in it. You also had to figure out how to pronounce Hermione’s name, but that was one of the few challenges that she presented you with.
It is this that is the problem with her new book, The Casual Vacancy, however. It turns out, when you’re not writing about a magical castle, your setting doesn’t need to be explained in such detail that you feel bullied into picturing it. The small, middleclass, typically English village, Pagford, in which she’s set her new book, is really quite a simple place. You can see a more realistic version of Petunia and Vernon Dudley quietly living their lives there. It’s a bit grim, everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business and there’s not too much more to it. Hogwarts was as much a character in Harry Potter as many of the central figures, but Pagford doesn’t quite warrant the same treatment.
When so much detail is put into the minutiae of a footpath or a laneway, you almost expect Dumbledore to appear on the spot to save the day or turn out the lights or whatever the situation may require, or for a Dementor to appear and terrorise whoever happens to be smoking there. The abundant adjectives that brought life to every part of Harry Potter almost cripple the story this time around.
Perhaps though, it is the fact that we are reading Vacancy within the context of her previous work that creates the problem. I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect magic to just happen in any and every situation in most adult fiction books. We know this isn’t Harry Potter. We know there is no magic. It is still very difficult, however, not to wait for Voldemort or his Death Eaters to arrive to justify the eternally gloomy, bleak atmosphere.
I could argue that we aren’t willing to move on, such a firm place as the Harry Potter series holds in many of our hearts, but I’m not entirely convinced Rowling hasn’t grown up either, or at least, wasn’t ready to. The Casual Vacancy is written in quite a similar style to Harry Potter, and it certainly doesn’t immediately scream that it’s written for adults. It’s not that she needed to throw in a pile of big words to appeal to an older audience, but the only real indication that it may not be a children’s book is that she very crudely discusses sex and masturbation, and her characters smoke and take drugs which was unheard of in the Harry Potter series. The closest we got to either was a weird half-assed kiss between Harry and Cho, and the odd swig of butterbeer.
The problem is, when she brings in these themes to her adult book, it’s in such a ridiculous cringe-inducing way that it almost feels condescending to a grown-up audience. Her characters also lack some of the depth that an older audience demand, and it all feels a bit like she was concentrating so hard on trying to squeeze in more adult themes, that she forgot that she was doing it because adults would be reading it.
It has been said that Rowling doesn’t feel comfortable in a room full of adults, but is in her element when those adults are replaced with their children. It’s also rarely a successful move when a children’s author moves into the ‘real world’. It is more common for it to work the other way, usually when the authors have children of their own. For example, J.R.R Tolkien only wrote The Hobbit for his four children.
The Casual Vacancy was always going to be subject to more scrutiny and criticism than most new releases, but you can’t help but feel that J.K. Rowling just didn’t quite make the transition to adult fiction she had intended to. She has been so engrossed in the magical world that she herself created for so long that perhaps she didn’t want to, but more than anything, we didn’t really want her to. We knew it would be different, but we wanted the same. Harry Potter made up so much of my childhood that I would welcome a million more, categorised for whatever age-group she likes. I don’t care about some dude dying in Pagford, unless Voldemort shouted Avada Kedavra in his face.
Dear Mr Potter, thank you for making my childhood magical.