'The Casual Vacancy': Adult content shows we're not at Hogwarts anymore

J.K. Rowling's new book for adults is highly anticipated, and adult content in the books shows it's no Potter do-over, though similar themes echo in 'Vacancy.'

J.K. Rowling's new book 'The Casual Vacancy,' to be released Sept. 27, reflects on the two topics that she says are her obsessions: morality and mortality.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once proclaimed, “There are no second acts in American lives,” J.K. Rowling is proving there are in British ones.

And third and fourth, it seems. The once-single mother who survived on welfare, then struck platinum-status with her seven-book series on the magical world of Harry Potter has reinvented herself again, this time as a novelist for an entirely new audience – adults. 

Rowling’s post-Harry era begins Sept. 27 with the release of “The Casual Vacancy.” The new novel is a 512-page tale of class warfare, morality, and small town politics set in an idyllic fictional English village.

The question on everyone’s mind: Whether Rowling can successfully crossover from her stratospherically triumphant reign as a children’s author and creator of the 450-million-selling Potter books, which made her net worth almost $900 million and set the bar for forthcoming books frighteningly high, to well-received adult novelist.

This much is clear: “The Casual Vacancy” is no “Harry Potter” and Rowling, thankfully, makes no apologies for this decidedly different track. Set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the book begins as a “rural comedy of manners” that builds into a portrayal of class warfare, strewn throughout with treatises on social welfare. Following the death of Pagford council member Barry Fairbrother, the well-heeled town is pitched into a divisive battle about its connection to Fields, a neighboring town characterized by its public housing and poverty. Historically, Pagford extended a hand to Fields – children from Fields could attend primary school in Pagford (“a place of flower baskets and other middle-class comforts) and the town also ran a drug-treatment clinic that served many in Fields. But with the death of council member Fairbrother, Pagford’s “anti-Fields faction sees an opportunity to rid Pagford of this burden.”

After reading the 512-page novel and interviewing the famously reserved Rowling, writer Ian Parker shared his thoughts in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker

“Within a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children,” Parker writes. “The Casual Vacancy,” after all, is a tale of “class warfare set amid semi-rural poverty, heroin addiction, and teenage perplexity and sexuality.”

“…But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. “The Causal Vacancy” describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother – who dies in the first chapter but remains the story’s moral center – had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his – tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.”

Even Rowling found similar themes. “I think there is a through-line,” the author told Parker of the New Yorker. “Mortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.”

But, by most accounts, the similarities end there. For those accustomed to Rowling’s more traditional, buttoned-up children’s fare, “The Casual Vacancy” is most certainly not that.

There’s this: “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.” And this, about a lustful little boy who sits on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.”

Some have asked Rowling whether she felt some responsibility for her band of youthful fans who grew up reading Harry Potter and would now, surely pick up “The Casual Vacancy.” “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” Rowling told the New Yorker. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”

Following the unprecedented success of her Potter series, it would have been easy for Rowling to continue writing Potter adventures, or at least, more children’s books. With this new adult novel, she drummed up the courage to branch out and take a risk.

Writes the New Yorker’s Parker, “I asked her if publishing the new book made her feel exposed. ‘I thought I’d feel frightened at this point,’ she said. ‘Not just because it’s been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter—anything—was going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I’m honest. It’s not the place I’m happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don’t have to publish it.’ And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you’re Salinger.’” 

“Authors, and especially successful authors, are expected to keep producing more of the same,” writes the UK’s Telegraph. (The curse, if you will, of the Harry Potter phenomenon.) “To change genres can upset their fans.” 

In an autobiography A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame complained “that the artist who has early success with a painting of a policeman is expected to paint policemen forever,” as the New Yorker writes. “If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.” Although Milne is best known for his children’s books centered on that lovable bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, he attempted at various points in his career to explore all genres, including sketches, plays, mysteries, novels, short stories, even war pamphlets – with mixed success. “As a discerning critic pointed out,” Milne wrote, “the hero of my latest play, God help it, was ‘just Christopher Robin grown up.’ So that even when I stop writing about children, I still insist on writing about who were children once.”

Though we have yet to get our hands on a copy of “The Casual Vacancy,” we wager to say Rowling has already accomplished something remarkable in having the courage to walk away from the “easy success” of another Potter novel or even another children’s book and leap into a new genre. With “The Casual Vacancy,” she is attempting to escape the curse that accompanies any smash success.

As we page through this new, and no doubt very different piece of the Rowling canon, we’ll do our best not to superimpose upon every second character a certain beloved boy wizard we once knew. Because whatever Fitzgerald said, everyone deserves a second act – and a fresh read.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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