The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling, Little, Brown, 512 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1408704202
JK Rowling’s much awaited novel finally arrived for the millions of muggle children who read Harry Potter and the adults who did too, albeit in a different dust jacket or under the cover of Kindle. Some queued at midnight without children to capture the first copies and have them read by morning light. Though I was among those bewitched by Pottermania, I came to The Casual Vacancy with an open mind and much hope.
Rowling’s first “adult” novel (these categories are less and less useful) is definitely over the watershed for her beloved audience of children, but even the adults will be longing for a return to the magic of Hogwarts. The adult title seems to have given Rowling permission to swear like an Elizabethan sailor, use sex and themes of incest, drug addiction and rape, self-harm, suicide and graphic descriptions of online pornography that have been fictionally pent up in her Potter years. It feels like she has been let loose from her parental lock.
The novel is an Aga saga that takes place in the pastoral West Country parish of Pagford. When Barry Fairbrother, the main character and moral compass of the novel, dies in the opening pages, from an aneurysm, a “casual vacancy is left on the parish council. (A casual vacancy is defined as occurring a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or b) when his notice of resignation is received; or c) on the day of his death.)
Barry was the only opponent of a plan to realign the Fields, a notorious run-down council estate to the council of nearby Yarvill. The county council wants to vote in someone to replace him who will ensure that the Fields, with its drug dealers and prostitutes and disadvantaged, is no longer a taint on the Wisteria Lane pastoral town of Pagford and its privileged primary school. Barry was the one shining example of someone who escaped the Fields, went to university and rose socially. As a teacher and local councillor, he was the champion of its underclass and in particular of Krystal Weedon and her much damaged family.
Though he is dead, Barry’s ghost haunts the novel. With the competition for a new councillor in full cry, there are internet hackings on to the parish website, revealing scurrilous but true gossip about the candidates. Though written by their children and wives, they are signed “The ghost of Barry Fairbrother”.
The almost Russian-novel number of characters, thirty-five, would need a family tree to keep them all straight and one finds oneself flipping back and forth to remember who is who. The narrative switch between a few families in the rural community becomes confusing. This confusion is not just of numbers, but of depth. It is easy to confuse the Samanthas and the Shirleys since they lack back story and ultimately humanity.
Rowling’s great strength in her Potter books was in characterisation and page-turning plots that kept a world of magic within the bounds of believability. This novel’s adult characters seem to be spawned by the fat Dursley family, who kept Harry locked in a cupboard when he was not in Hogwarts. Howard Mollison, the most obese and reactionary and Dursleyesque character leads the way in trying to install his son Myles into the vacant position on the county council. He is no more than a melodrama villain.
At the heart of the Potter series was an everychild in the form of Harry himself, ordinary yet extraordinary, wearing glasses and an invisibility cloak. All children could identify with the young orphaned wizard. The only characters we are allowed to know/like in The Casual Vacancy are not surprisingly the younger characters of the parish and the Fields. Though this is a world of adults caught up in petty county council politics, the most genuine parts of the book are about the youth and take place, not unexpectedly, in a school setting.
Rowling is better on adolescent characters than their stereotyped parents. Krystal is the teenage would-be heroine who struggles with a home life darker than Azkaban. We care about her because the dead Barry Fairbrother did and the social worker Kay who took over her case cared for her and her Gran cared for her. With her foul language, kleptomania and sexual promiscuity, she is hard to like, but she is all that we have.
Stuart “Fats” is a kind of Holden Caulfield with a fixation on authenticity. He is the adopted son of Tessa the guidance counsellor and Colin “Cubby”, the deputy headmaster at the local school, who suffers from an OCD disorder that makes him think he has committed crimes he has not. Fats, together with his best friend, Andrew, (Arf) form a friendship with Krystal, a trio that cries out for the camaraderie of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
At the heart of the Potter series is a battle between good and evil, but the medieval morality play always stayed within the bounds of the ordinary and the magical, never breaking the rules of the fantasy it created. In The Casual Vacancy, there are wars between parents and children, neighbours and friends, the town and its Pakistani immigrants, the rich and the poor, but they are skirmishes rather than battles and we struggle to care.
What is missing is the likeability factor and caring ultimately what will happen to its many characters. It is a comedy of manners without the comedy, but a world as class-bound as Downtown Abbey or the world of Muggles and Wizards.
One of the more conservative councillors, Aubrey Frawly, reminds the group that the Fields is rampant with “the culture of entitlement, people who have literally not worked a day in their life”. There are contemporary resonances for British class politics and more recently, Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47 per cent of American “victims” who won’t vote for him anyway. The novel’s heart is in the right place.
It is unfair but perhaps inevitable to compare the Potter books with Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction. But at the end, despite tragedy and sentiment, there is something empty at the core of the novel. Dare I say vacant?
Brenna Katz Clarke is former head of English at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra.