It seems that when beloved Harry Potter author JK Rowling departed Hogwarts with her latest novel, she strayed a little far from her adoring public, too. The new book, A Casual Vacancy, has been published for all of a week and is already shrouded in controversy. Though it was never intended to be for a young audience, its mature content was the first apparent no-no that sent some readers over the edge. Next, she offended her home county of Gloucestershire by depicting its inhabitants as snobby bigots. Now, the author battles allegations that her novel is offensive to Sikhs, and may actually face a nation-wide ban in India. Deary me. Before we’re all caught up in the sensationalism of these allegations, here are the straight facts of the book:
1. This is NOT Harry Potter and the Casual Vacancy, people.
Anyone expecting this book to be a follow-up to the Harry Potter series, or even in the same vein, has quite the shock coming. Clearly, when she wrote The Casual Vacancy Rowling was looking to her next project as a departure from the world of fantasy that she dwelt in before. I think I would be too if I had been writing in the same world for nearly two decades. She has been quite clear from the start that this is not one for the kiddies.
Unfortunately, the writer will have a hard time shaking the identity associated with her name, as parents now have the tough task of explaining to their kids that they can’t read the latest Jo Rowling creation. For one thing, her self-described “rural comedy of manners” has some quite mature content. While the most deplorable word uttered in Harry Potter was b****, in this one Rowling gets a little more, um, creative… In fact, some of the scenarios and colorful vocab seem to have been heightened by the sheer fact that Rowling couldn’t write them in her first seven published novels. She explains her need to write the rude bits in an interview with The New Yorker:
She was ready for a change of genre. “I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling said. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.”
Quite right. In any case, you’ve been forewarned–this one is rated R.
2. This book should be placed under the Fiction section.
Rowling comes from a small village in the English countryside called Tutshil. While she probably used the quaint Gloucestershire surroundings as inspiration for the backdrop of her story, I doubt the plot of a parish council election gone haywire is anything but the figment of her imagination. However, the book’s fictional town of Pagford, “a hotbed of cruelty and snobbery,” has tongues wagging all over Middle England, saying Rowling has shed an unflattering light on her home county, probably for “the novel’s bleak subject matter, which includes child abuse, prostitution and drugs.”
Does nobody read that fine-print reminder that everything and everyone contained in the book is a work of fiction, and not based on facts or real people? I suppose that message flies out the window when your hometown’s feelings are hurt. Still, this is a little blown out of proportion.
3. The characters’ thoughts do not reflect the author’s.
This goes for any book. One doesn’t read American Psycho and assume Bret Easton Ellis shares the views of deranged serial killer Patrick Bateman. But for some reason, perhaps because of the grand scale that this novel has debuted on, readers are offended by the derogatory views expressed by a select group of unsavory characters in The Casual Vacancy. In particular, the language used in reference to an Indian girl in the novel has members of the Sikh community in an uproar.
In the novel, Sukhvinder is a young Sikh girl who is bullied by some of her peers. In the dialogue (NOT in the third-person objective narration) she is meanly called “the Great Hermaphrodite,” a “hairy man-woman,” and finally “mustachioed yet large-mammaried.” It’s these descriptions of her that out of context have Sikh spokesman Avtar Singh Makkar calling for a widespread ban of the novel. Note: the important words to reiterate there are out of context.
From The Telegraph,
Rowling has said she included Sukhvinder’s experiences as an example of “corrosive racism”. She has spoken of her admiration for the Sikh faith and said she was fascinated by a religion in which men and women are “explicitly described as equal in the holy book”.
A spokesman for Hachette, Rowling’s publisher, said the remarks were made by a character bullying Sukhvinder. “It is quite clear in the text of the book that negative thoughts, actions and remarks made by a character, Fats, who is bullying Sukhvinder, are his alone. When described in the narrative voice, the depiction of Sukhvinder is quite different to this,” the spokesman said.
However, Rowling’s statement of defense may not be enough to prevent a country-wide boycott of The Casual Vacancy in India, if the members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee deem it derogatory once they’ve finished reading it.
The whole controversy surrounding this novel has obviously been brought on by the massive expectations set for Rowling. She certainly wouldn’t have had to face such scrutiny had this novel been published before her famed fantasy series. I can’t help but think that it’s not really fair for her to be accused of such things; it’s as though everyone holds Rowling to a higher standard than other fiction writers. Is it possible for her to shake the Harry Potter image and create a new fan base? Mixed reviews for the content of the book aside, do you feel this criticism is warranted or not?