ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: JK Rowling for the grown-ups

Book columnist Heather Allen, from Penticton, checks out JK Rowling's newest offering The Casual Vacancy.

A cloak of secrecy surrounded the recent release of The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s new book for adults. The media was given no advance copies, and no early reviews were allowed. As with the Harry Potter series, the public relations black-out fuelled readers’ curiosity. The secret is now out.

In the tiny class-conscious town of Pagford, a prominent city councillor dies. A by-election ensues, which quickly becomes a nasty fight between conservatives who want to cut a seedy neighbourhood out of its town boundaries, and liberals who don’t. A large cast of mostly bitter, small-minded characters bicker over the future of the town.

The setting is far from magical. In fact, reading The Casual Vacancy feels at times like being trapped with the Dursleys, Harry Potter’s painfully dull adoptive family. That said, Rowling’s imagination and writing prowess shine through on many occasions. Not surprisingly the best scenes centre on the lives of the town’s teenagers. After all, Harry Potter’s success was partly due to Rowling’s ability to understand and empathize with young adults.

Much has been made of The Casual Vacancy’s not so young-adult content, which depicts drug use, sex and domestic abuse. Rowling at one point describes a used condom “glistening in the grass beside her feet like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”. Nonetheless, The Casual Vacancy isn’t actually that disturbing.

Just before reading The Casual Vacancy I finished Our Daily Bread by Lauren B Davis. This book, long-listed for the 2012 Giller Prize, also focuses on themes of sex, abuse and the neglect of marginal segments of society. However, the two writers’ approaches are entirely different.

Descriptions of down-and-out junkies in Our Daily Bread are extremely gritty, raw and visceral. Based on real life events, Davis’s story is so well-depicted that it’s almost too upsetting to read. And yet, in the end, I appreciated the book far more than The Casual Vacancy. Rowling does a good job depicting squalor and the tragic lives of people in the projects, but the writing is, at times, emotionally distant.

One notable exception is a subplot about the world of cyber bullying where Rowling unravels a story that is uncannily similar to Amanda Todd’s, a B.C. teen who recently committed suicide. Rowling offers a thoughtful and in-depth take on how bullying behavior develops in our society, and ironically, for the creator of Voldemort, it isn’t simply an issue of good versus evil.

Rowling has hinted that her next book will be written for children. Regardless of the intended audience, I hope she will continue to write stories about youth. It’s the one place where she always seems to create magic.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader in Penticton.