Little, Brown & Co., 2012
The best thing that JK Rowling’s new novel, Casual Vacancy, has going for it is the success of the author’s Harry Potter franchise. Having created a loyal fan-base from a widely successful multivolume series, it is not surprising that her next venture would receive substantial attention and would force the critics to ask the necessary questions about comparison.
What made the Harry Potter series a success, in large part, was Rowling’s deep sensitivity to the real conflicts that plague young people. To the long tradition of English public school fiction, Rowling added something new by reversing the trend of depicting children as merely powerless and petty. There was the real possibility that they could accomplish something meaningful and important and define their own identities rather than succumb to the definitions that were imposed on them from above, even when prophesied. The forces that they faced were larger than mean-spirited teachers or unflinchingly severe bullies: they were defying racial eugenics, pervasive attacks on civil liberties, the standardization of education, and they were winning. That was the real magic of those stories.
Casual Vacancy, on the other hand, has none of the possibility, the sense of transformation, or the shining ambition of rebellion that the Potter novels possess. In part, this is because the novel is a reflection of the utter failure of Labourism in England, both as social agenda and as political philosophy. The England of today is not the England of the Potter novels, which was, at a minimum, the England that was turning away from Thatcherism and trying to imagine itself without neoliberalism: If Voldemort was the novel’s Enoch Powell, then Dumbledore was its Robin Cook. The switch from magic to realism in Rowling’s novel is in some sense a reflection of the fact that in every sense, things have gotten much worse. One of the reasons that you can’t go back to Harry Potter is that you can’t go back to the Labour Party—the magic is simply gone, if it was ever there at all.