On meeting JK Rowling & my review of The Casual Vacancy

So last Thursday, I checked off one lifelong dream: meeting JK Rowling.

The event was held at the Southbank Centre in London, in front of a 900-strong adoring crowd. As JK Rowling walked in (on some truly vertiginous Jimmy Choos) the crowd leapt to their feet, me alongside them. In fact, I’m going to blame the outpouring of goodwill towards the author for my next move… which was to promptly burst into tears. It was a big moment.

Most of the talk was broadcast live, and has been picked over by various blogs and media so I won’t go into it in great detail. But JK Rowling was charming, funny (especially when doing a West Country accent!), and so gracious towards audience questions. She didn’t refuse to answer questions about Potter (as some authors might have done), and she even accepted a gift from a Spanish audience member. It was incredibly sweet, and I wish I had had his guts!

Then the stampede for the signing – honestly, I don’t know why they didn’t go row-by-row! It ended up being that I was one of the last 10-20 people in line. This was annoying because it meant waiting for almost 2 hours to get my book signed… but in return, I got to have a mini-chat with Jo herself! It went something like this.

*I am rushed towards the table by the staff* [at this point, I had mini flashbacks to the George R.R. Martin signing we did, as I was one of the minions moving people along!]
Me: “Hi Jo, I just wanted to quickly say thank you so much – you are a huge inspiration to me as a writer and I have my first book coming out next year from Random House.”
JK: “Oh my god, that’s amazing! Congratulations. It’s so great to meet a fellow writer!”
Me: *speechless* *floored* *dies*
*I am then frowned at and rushed away*

My fellow Rowling-ite, Natasha, wasn’t able to get a picture while I was at the table, but I stood there grinning like a maniac for one after!

As I stood for the photo, my hands were literally shaking. I don’t think I realized what a visceral reaction I would have to meeting her – but then, she is one of my biggest literary idols! I can’t imagine what I’d be like if someone put me in front of  Philip Pullman.

I got the signature! As you can see. But what about the book? I deliberately haven’t read any other reviews or commentary before posting my own. Read on for my review…

The truth is, The Casual Vacancy is not a book I would normally read. If I’m not reading for work – which is pretty much exclusively science fiction, fantasy and YA – I’m reading a historical conspiracy thriller or a really pulpy serial killer crime novel. I don’t really read any contemporary fiction, be it literary or chick lit or ‘women’s fiction’.

So the only reason I’m reading The Casual Vacancy is because of my admiration for the author. And, to be honest, I’m very glad that I did. It’s a novel that had me scaling the entire emotional spectrum – from pure, fire-breathing rage, to laugh-out-loud giggles, to heart-breaking sadness. It is definitely not what I would classify as an easy read, or a short one – it took me a good four days to finish (for reference, I read the last Potter in around 7-8hours, so I’m a quick reader!).

The Casual Vacancy is the story of the rapid disintegration of one small West Country village after a single (cataclysmic) event: the death of one Barry Fairbrother. It turns out, this man has touched many lives in the village and in the council estate that sits just beyond its confines: known as ‘The Fields’. It is the story of those who are trying to uphold Barry’s legacy and keep supporting The Fields, those who are trying desperately to undermine it and cut off the estate from the village, and those who are indifferent – which might just be the most damning position to hold of all.

I found it a compelling read but not an “unputdownable” one. Through The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling displays all the skills she did in the Potters, able to get right to the heart of human emotions, charting the landscape of adolescent  minds with as much insight and agility as she always did. Her writing is very similar to Potter – admittedly with a lot more swearing! – and the plot, though somewhat reliant on one key device, moved swiftly to its brutal, heartbreaking conclusion.

But still, at certain points in the novel, I just had to put it down. It happened whenever I thought I could sense a slight contempt for humanity in Jo’s work, a view that seems distinctly hopeless. In a way it made my stomach twist – is this life, then? Men and women stuck in loveless marriages, entrapped by their own cowardice. Kids hating parents, parents hating or ignoring their kids. Petty gossip ripping apart lives. But then I am an eternal optimist, and that’s probably why some of Jo’s writing affected me to the point of having to press pause on my reading button. If that’s reality, let me stick to my fantasy, thanks.

It’s also the case that, apart from maybe high school, I’ve never really existed in a community that is as insular and concerned as the one Jo Rowling describes (and in a lot of ways, I hope I never do). While some of her insights read as uncannily accurate, in the same breath I really wonder if some of the major gossipy ‘revelations’ are as earth-shattering as they end up becoming. I wonder if Jo thinks that too, which is why some of them get taken to the utmost extreme.

One thing is for certain, I am never going to be able to look at boy bands the same way again.

You can tell I don’t write reviews often, as I’m left rather perplexed and conflicted now that I’ve written all my thoughts down.  I enjoyed the book, undoubtedly. It both moved and disgusted me at equal turn; I don’t think this is a book you can read without having some sort of reaction, and that in itself is high literary praise. And I hope that this book is just the starting point of Jo’s post-Potter writing career, and that we will see more from her as the years unfold. I wonder if she’ll feel even more freedom now to write different things, as The Casual Vacancy was so far (in content and tone) from Potter that in some ways it felt like a reply. Potter teaches about hope, and I’m not entirely sure you can say that about The Casual Vacancy, although it wasn’t entirely without redemption at the end.

And it’s not at all surprising that said redemption comes from one of the themes that does recur in TCV and Potter: death and mortality. At the Southbank Centre event, Jo talked a lot about death and how it fascinates and intrigues her. It seems that for Jo, death is a release – a kind of redemption reserved for her most beloved characters. And equally, for Jo, the worst punishment she can think of to give those who committed the greatest sins,  is to be forced to live with them.

4/5 stars.

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2 thoughts on “On meeting JK Rowling & my review of The Casual Vacancy

  1. Laura says:

    Hi,

    I was also there and would like to be a writer. I had a similar moment when I finally got to meet her. Instead of saying what I wanted to say I turned into a bumbling idiot.
    It was amazing to see her talk about the new book and about Potter.
    🙂

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