A review of JK Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy…
I really wanted to like JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I really did. Rowling, author of the much-loved Harry Potter series, gets a rough deal from the literary establishment. The likes of AS Byatt and Harold Bloom (two figures who made my undergraduate degree in English quite miserable) sneered at Potter, dismissing its phenomenal success. However, compared to both Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter is Shakespearean.
That was why I hoped The Casual Vacancy would be a success, an interesting read. However, while it does engage the reader’s attention, it falls ultimately flat due to some deep flaws.
The story has more twists and turns than the seven Potter books, but basically it concerns the small town of Pagford in the west of England, whose middle-class fear the ever-encroaching Fields council estate and the growing town of Yarvil. Barry Fairbrother, a local councillor and boy-done-good, drops dead, leaving his seat on the council open. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we follow the townspeople of all classes and ages, from teen tearaway Krystal Weedon to the smug businessman Howard Mollison, as the poison-pen internet messages reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of those standing for election; Simon Price, Parminder Jawanda and Colin Wall. All three want the Fields to remain under Pagford’s control. Miles Mollison, son of Howard and Shirley, is also up for election, and he wants the Fields to be Yarvil’s problem.
Some of Rowling’s flaws as a writer (too many adverbs, for example) have grown worse since Potter, and this time there is not the magical world of wizards to to compensate.
The scale of the novel is almost Dickensian and that is its greatest flaw. There are simply too many characters, and we hear from every single one of them, sometimes in the space of one page. At around page fifty, I had to look back to a previous chapter just to remember who such-and-such a person was. There is a Shirley and a Samantha in the same family; I’m sure I wasn’t alone in finding the names confusing. As a result, some of the adult characters, in particular, fall flat and the reader never grows attached to them.
Another issue is that none of the inhabitants of Pagford are very likeable. We spend too much time with the weak-willed Gavin, the venomous Shirley and the sociopathic Fats Wall. As for the villainous Simon Price, even Voldemort had more depth. The nicest character of all is the late Barry Fairbrother, whose only critic is his grief-stricken wife. Barry seems almost too perfect- he is a sharp contrast to the others.
Miles’ wife, Samantha Mollison, charmingly cynical and one of the better characters, recognises the insignificance of the parish council. “Libby had once told Samantha that there could be thousands of microscopic species inside one drop of pond water. They were all perfectly ridicuolous, Samantha thought, sitting here in front of Shirley’s commemorative plates as if they were in the Cabinet Room in Downing Street… as though any of it mattered.” Unfortunately all too few of the characters share Samantha’s attitude. It is hard for the reader to give a damn about a parish council; there is the recognition that none of its decisions are binding and the removal of the Fields will not halt urbanisation of Pagford.
The Casual Vacancy is a novel about class, and we are hit on the head with the message repeatedly. The upper middle classes are smug and petty; the attitudes so effortlessly captured in the Dursley family in Harry Potter lose their charm when stretched out to large chunks of a novel. The real problem is the depiction of the poverty-stricken, drug-addled Weedon family, which consists of heroin addict Terri and her children, Krystal and Robbie. It is impossible to believe that the Weedons are so poor they don’t have a TV or any proper furniture; that 16-year-old Krystal is unsure what a banana tastes like; that she doesn’t have her own mobile phone. This is meant to be the UK in 2012, not Somalia.
Krystal is hit with every possible problem conceivable; she is dyslexic, her mother’s a junkie and a prostitute, and there is sexual abuse in the family. At least Rowling admits that this isn’t the norm. Krystal’s friends, Nikki and Leanne, have better lives. “Krystal liked Nikki’s house better than any other… It was friendlier, comfortingly loud and busy… The walls were covered with pictures cut out of magazines”. Krystal, naturally, has a heart of gold. She loves her brother with a fierce loyalty, stands up for the unpopular Suhkvinder Jawanda, and Barry Fairbrother introduced her her to rowing before his untimely death, which could be her saviour. However, due to the cliches, it is hard to take the poverty of Terri, Krystal and Robbie seriously.
Krystal is raped and thinks, almost automatically, that if she is pregnant she will get a council house. Rowling’s intentions may be noble, but that wouldn’t even figure in the Daily Express’ wildest fantasies. By trying to render a class she clearly has seen most often on Jeremy Kyle, she ends up feeding into the UK’s discourse against the poor. The most astute observation she makes is when she tells us that the Weedons are one of the oldest families in Pagford, their name featuring on the town’s war memorial. It illustrates how life has decreased in quality in modern Britain rather than increased, almost harking back to EM Forster’s observations about Leonard Bast in Howards End.
Another pet peeve is the rendition of the Fields’ characters’ accents phonetically. It is difficult to read and seems to be only done to show up their lack of education and class status. There is a strong emphasis on the London accents of Kay (Krystal’s social worker) and her daughter Gaia; surely then all of Pagford’s inhabitants have strong West Country accents and should be therefore rendered phonetically?
It’s not all bad. JK Rowling has always been more of a storyteller than a writer, and The Casual Vacancy is tightly plotted, its disparate elements coming together in a neat and believeable conclusion. Some characters do grab the readers’ attention; Samantha Mollison, Andrew Price, Suhkvinder Jawanda and Krystal. There is humour, but of a much darker brand that Potter fans are used to.
Three of the above-mentioned characters are teenagers, unsurprisingly. A bind that Rowling found herself in with Harry Potter was that she had to write 17-year-olds who couldn’t swear, experiment with substances or have sex. The characters in The Casual Vacancy do all three with alarming regularity, and the novel is better for it.
The ending is bleak, very bleak. None of the characters get what they want, but (in the words of Mick Jagger) some get what they need. However, bleak as it is, it is curiously unaffecting.
The Casual Vacancy, ambitiously taking in a cast of dozens, and a dozen more ‘issues’ (self-harm, suicide, elderly isolation, drug abuse, OCD, to name but a few) took on way too much. Rowling has said she will probably go back to children’s fiction for her next book. She shouldn’t be put off adult fiction by The Casual Vacancy, but she should definitely find herself a blunt and honest editor.