The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little, Brown – September 2012)
The main problem I had with this book was managing my expectations. Like many others I am a long-standing fan of the Harry Potter books and have read the series through several times. In my mind Voldemort has been vanquished and JK Rowling should, like Harry Potter, be allowed to live happily ever after…surely? The thought of her writing a book for Muggles seemed strange and wrong. The first indication of what to expect was the title, The Casual Vacancy, in itself rather vague. The cover art, released months in advance of the publication date—to much fanfare and obsessive analysis, similarly gave nothing away. The blurb introduced the character Barry Fairbrother and the clue that the title referred to a vacancy created on the Parish Council due to his death. In my mind ‘Barry’ is a comic name so I had assumed that I should expect a comic novel; a light-hearted satire on village life—the petty gossip and concerns of small-town existence. (It might have created a very different first impression if his name was John or Peter.) But there were also preliminary hints that The Casual Vacancy contained council estates, drug use, neglected children, and suddenly it seemed possible that Rowling was attempting some sort of kitchen-sink realism. In truth The Casual Vacancy is none of these things but I had to fight my way through all of these perceptions to get to grips with what this novel actually is. I’m still not quite sure.
As mentioned above, the book opens with the sudden death of one Barry Fairbrother in the village of Pagford. The Parish Council is in the midst of an ongoing battle about the future of a council estate on the edge of Pagford. The majority of the Council, under the leadership of First Citizen Howard Mollison, are attempting to push the responsibility for ‘The Fields’ estate back on to the District Council in the adjacent town of Yarvil. Barry Fairbrother, himself a former inhabitant of The Fields and resolute champion of the working-class underdog, is spearheading the opposition. The ‘casual vacancy’ created by his sudden death requires the election of another councillor and this appointment will be significant for the outcome of The Fields issue. We are introduced to the characters as each hears and responds to the news of Barry’s death, and from there Rowling slowly unravels the complex web of conflict and tension that binds the inhabitants of Pagford together.
In some ways this is actually a children’s book, not a book for children obviously, but a book in which, as a reader, you take the children’s side against the adults. This is not to say that the children are particularly worthy – they are predominantly awful creatures but their behaviour is easily attributed in part at least to terrible parenting. The first half of the book left me desperate to find at least one character with some redeeming characteristics. The narrative was weighted particularly heavily towards exposing the weakness and flaws of the characters up front. The constantly shifting omniscient perspective allows the reader to see each character through their own eyes and through the interpretations or misinterpretations of others. This is skilfully done but I did see the book referred to on Twitter as a ‘gloomy soap opera’ and this is probably a fair assessment of the first half at least.
Some of the teenagers’ issues addressed in The Casual Vacancy seemed rather predictable: cyber-bullying, cutting, drug-use, casual sex and birth-control – token issues, but some of the adult’s inner-battles are delightfully bizarre and creative. There is an element of caricature but this is balanced with some of the sober realities of life. One of my favourite characters is Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall and his quest for ‘authenticity’—pursued to the exclusion of all other considerations but still coloured with a teenager’s capacity for complete self-delusion. He is an obnoxious kid but still, like most of Rowling’s characters, has the potential for redemption.
As a reader you do feel safe in the hands of such a master story-teller. There was never any doubt in my mind that there would be resolution in the end. In a way this gave The Casual Vacancy, despite the drugs and council estates, quite an old-fashioned feel. Rowling herself says ‘I love nineteenth century novels that centre on a town or village. This is my attempt to do a modern version.’ The Casual Vacancy does have the feel of a contemporary Barchester Towers. The lives of the huge ensemble cast are fastidiously intertwined—contemporary fiction is rarely as tightly plotted as this.
Once I allowed myself to relax into the story, once I had stopped trying to classify it, I really enjoyed the second half—I read it a lot quicker than the first half and was suitably moved and comforted by the resolution. Perhaps the publishers were trying to avoid preconceived notions by putting out such a non-committal message upfront or perhaps they too were not quite sure how to classify it. But if you are able to set aside your idea of what you think this book is going to be then you will probably enjoy it a lot more.