Oscar Wilde's famous line "The good end happily and the bad unhappily, that is what fiction means" sums up the hero's journey that is the Harry Potter series. Inventive and imaginative, the reader enters a world that could never be, and encounters characters full of the greatest attributes of mankind: kindness, loyalty and courage prime among them. Goodness inevitably triumphs over evil, and the victory is won by not a single hero, but a band of friends exhibiting humanity at its best.
Humanity is not at its best in "The Casual Vacancy", far from it. Readers who found it exhilarating to imagine themselves soaring through the air on a broomstick or a hippogriff are rudely dropped onto the hard asphalt of contemporary class and racial bias. It is not a pretty sight or enjoyable experience. It is not meant to be.
I responded the same way many readers did by realizing that there isn't a single character that is not deeply flawed, and in many ways, unlikeable. The one person we would actually like to have as a friend dies at the outset of the book, and even he has imperfect relationships with those closest to him. His presence created equilibrium between warring factions driven by prejudice and mistrust. His death upsets the balance and begins a cascade of events which ends in tragedy. A more hopeful book would have the characters experience epiphanies which would change them internally and the world around them externally.
But this is not a hopeful book. I don't think it was meant to be. The author masterfully weaves the strands of the plot until all the characters have to look at themselves deeply if they are capable of it. Many of them are not, and are not changed by the losses they experience. This is where fantasy and reality collide, good is not going to triumph over evil, and that is depressing and heartbreaking.
The point, I believe, is that complex problems do not have easy answers, and sometimes have no answers at all. The Potter series is about finding the hidden power within you. This book is about the hidden powerlessness we feel as a society when confronted by the fear of those who are not like us. While we have best of intentions, our fear triumphs over our desire to do the right thing.
I believe Ms. Rowling's intent was to make us think deeply about intractable problems, and I think she was successful in doing so. It is not an enjoyable read, but it is an important one. It makes us uncomfortable, this time she didn't want to entertain us with fantasy, but to give us a big dose of reality as seen by a skilled storyteller.
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