8th Oct 2012
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
The Harry Potter books were fables. They took familiar, deep-rooted truths – the pettiness and banality of evil, the often unremarkable and unnoticed nature of good – and couched them in new, fantastical terms, making them seem fresh and alive again.
The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first book for adults, takes similar themes, but leaves them in the most mundane of settings – small-town, modern-day Britain. This is a tale of middle England, and the petty grievances, the prejudices, the everyday tragedy, violent relationships and, above all, the loneliness – seemingly everyone is lonely – that the small, apparently idyllic community of Pagford contains.
The novel opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a town councillor who had made it his life’s mission to fight the corner of the inhabitants of Pagford’s local sink estate – The Fields. An opposing faction, headed by the grotesque Howard Mollinson, is desperate to offload all municipal responsibility for the poverty-stricken, drug-ridden estate onto the neighbouring town of Yarvil, and keep Pagford picture-book twee and solidly middle-class. When Barry dies, Howard and co (first cousins of the Dursleys) determine to fill his vacant seat with Howard’s own son, Miles, and push through changes on their own terms.
The Casual Vacancy is a novel in the 19th-century realist tradition: already dubbed ‘Mugglemarch’ by some, its West-Country setting also calls to mind Thomas Hardy. Its cast of characters is vast, and they are well-observed and well-directed. From the truanting, promiscuous Krystal Weedon, daughter of a heroin-addicted prostitute and anti-poster-girl of The Fields, to the weary teachers and social workers, the bullied teenagers and the pompous snobs, each character is recognisable and distinct but – mostly – escapes stereotype. There are moments, too, of acute observation – Rowling is particularly good at minor but excruciating scenes of social embarrassment, and the endless, tiny injustices of everyday life that rankle almost more than anything.
Many reviewers have commented on the novel’s dark themes, its unflinching depictions of drug addiction, rape, domestic violence, grinding poverty. Perhaps they forget that Rowling has always focused on the battles between good and evil; perhaps it’s just easier to ignore that when evil is wielding a wand. Perhaps, too, it is the utter absence of any redemptive happy ending, or any hint that good will eventually triumph over evil that makes The Casual Vacancy such a bleak book. Perhaps, after all, this is only realistic.
Yet realism alone is not enough, and The Casual Vacancy is realism taken to the point of pointlessness – it is truthful, yes, but without telling anyone anything that they didn’t already know. The prose is uninventive and clichéd, and consequently Rowling’s themes, admirable as they are, feel leadenly didactic.
Nobody ever read Rowling for the beauty of her prose – she comes from the ‘tell, don’t show, and then tell again just to be sure’ school of writing; her metaphors and turns of phrase sometimes tend towards the downright clunky. Rather, in Rowling’s previous novels, it was the drive of her narrative and the richness of her imagined alternative universe that has drawn millions of readers in.
The Casual Vacancy, sadly, has neither of these things to recommend it, and reaching the last of its 500-odd pages felt like a chore.
Recommended for… Fans of Big Novels – books by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, or Anthony Trollope.