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Rowling looks for magic beyond Potter

Sam Stryker | Monday, April 16, 2012

 

The year of 2012 is packed with a slew of significant cultural events – in July, the latest “Batman” and “Spiderman” movies are released, in November a president will be elected and in December, the world is supposed to end. But perhaps the most anticipated date on the year’s calendar falls on September 27 – the day J.K. Rowling’s first post-“Potter” novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” is released.

Rowling is perhaps the most significant figure in children’s literature of all time, thanks to her “Harry Potter” series. However, her new release, her first aimed at adult readers, is the literary equivalent of Peyton Manning joining the Denver Broncos – highly anticipated, shockwave-inducing, slightly strange and a milestone event in popular culture.

The premise for “The Casual Vacancy” is tantalizing to say the least – when the synopsis was released last week, just enough was revealed to whet readers’ appetites, without revealing too much. 

Set in the small English town of Pagford, the book tells the tale of social clashes following the death of a parish councilman – fighting between teens and parents, wives and husbands, teachers and pupils ensues. The plot seems to center around the race for the empty parish councilman’s seat – an election “fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations,” according to Little, Brown & Company, the book’s publisher.

Perhaps the most intriguing detail revealed about the novel does not concern the plot, but the book’s tone of “black comedy.” Rowling’s deft hand with dark humor was clearly evident in the “Potter” novels. Mrs. Weasley’s battle cry as she defends her daughter from Bellatrix Lestrange in the seventh novel is particularly memorable ¾ despite “The Deathly Hallows” ostensibly being a children’s novel, the mother of seven uses some choice language as she kills the Death Eater.

Now that Rowling is relieved of the restrictions that comes with writing a children’s series, it will be interesting to see how this black comedy emerges in “The Casual Vacancy.” Unrestrained, it would seem the possibilities are endless – and a small-town setting filled with secrets and intrigue offers a wealth of opportunities for her dark wit.

The location itself also is an interesting creative choice. A small English village is about as un-magical as you can get, and it seems Rowling is trying to not only develop herself beyond her career-defining “Potter” series, but also distinguish herself as an author. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to be doing so in an uncouth manner ¾ she respects association with a major franchise, while looking to progress beyond her past success.

In addition to her wit, one of her strongest traits that shined in the “Harry Potter” books was Rowling’s development of the characters and the world they lived in – ask anyone who plays Sporcle about the “Harry Potter” quiz, which roles 200 characters deep. The wizarding world of Hogwarts, Muggles and Quidditch is fantastical, yet believable because of Rowling’s attention to detail. 

With a small English town with a likely motley assortment of characters, Rowling should have no trouble utilizing this skill. Pagford may be as far away from Hogwarts as imaginable, but “The Casual Vacancy” seems to play to Rowling’s strengths. 

Despite astronomical expectations, there is no reason to believe “The Casual Vacancy” will disappoint. Despite the fact Rowling developed perhaps the most significant media franchise since “Star Wars,” she always remained in control of every aspect of her series. Even when “Potter” exploded onto the scene, Rowling never lost her grip – she played a role in the decision-making process of the film series, the development of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, and was the prominent figure in “Pottermore,” the online “Harry Potter” community website. 

It may be cliché to say, but Rowling had the Midas touch because she oversaw the entire development of “Harry Potter” as a media property. She started writing the series on paper napkins, and now has a record-setting set of novels, a theme park and blockbuster film series to her name. She has earned the right to do whatever she wants creatively without even the most cynical reader questioning her decision-making. 

Instead of worrying whether “The Casual Vacancy” will be able to live up to her previous work, audiences instead can look forward to what should be an amazing 480 pages of mystery, black comedy, and plot-twists. Suffice it to say, J.K. Rowling doesn’t need wizards and witches to create literary magic.

Contact Sam Stryker at sstryke1@nd.edu