The Harry Potter series famously opens with a chapter called "The Boy Who Lived," which any of J.K. Rowling's millions of fans would tell you refers to Harry's miraculous survival after the dark wizard Voldemort attacked and killed his parents.
In Rowling's new novel for adults, the first chapter could easily be titled "The Man Who Died," since the entire novel subsequently revolves around the death of the one fairly likable character. Just as Harry's status as a miraculous survivor gives him an elevated position in the fantasy series, Barry Fairbrother's status as a revered corpse reverberates through "The Casual Vacancy."
The premise of "The Casual Vacancy" is that one man's death sets into motion a series of escalating events in a small country town called Pagford. The results, some of which are quite tragic, highlight the social and ethnic divisions in British society.
What struck me — after I got used to the coarse language and the vivid descriptions of sex and drug use from the writer who gave us chocolate frogs — was how perfectly Rowling's book inverts the Harry Potter saga.
Where the Potter books were almost cloying in their dedication to the power of love and how it can save us all, "The Casual Vacancy" is more often than not about hate — how neighbors see petty motives in each other even in the midst of grief, how teenagers torment each other and their parents, and how outward appearances often mask despicable realities.
If the Harry Potter books opened us up to a world of magic and fantasy, this book takes us down to the gritty level of the housing project where one woman's heroin addiction leads to the eventual ruin of her family.
It's as if Rowling had decided, from the very beginning, to write something so vastly different from her enormously popular series that she aimed for its opposite.
That's not to say there aren't wonderful things about the book. The writing is at a level I wouldn't have thought possible after reading the Harry Potter series — which, let's face it, was much more admired for its plot structure than for its sentence structure.
Rowling's trademark humor also peeks through even as she's writing about teenagers with evil intentions and randy housewives. She has some fun using a few clever references to the Potter series as well, as when one teenage character "wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom."
That line made me feel wistful for the time when Harry, Ron and Hermione learned how to disapparate, but it also made me realize that Rowling is an ambitious writer with a world view that goes way beyond a place called Hogwarts.