The biggest problem with The Casual Vacancy is that it’s not Harry Potter. It’s not a problem for me, and I am guessing that JK Rowling doesn’t have much of a problem with that either, but for a lot of readers this will be an issue. Not an issue, this will be THE issue. Because of the name on the front cover, a lot of people will read this book who wouldn’t have otherwise read it, and a lot of those people may find themselves disappointed, not because it’s not a very good book (it is), but because it’s nothing like what came before. I dare say that with a different name on the cover, this book would have garnered better reviews (they’ve been on the positive side of mixed) and generated greater respect for its author.
I came to this book as someone who had seen all of the Harry Potter films, read one of the books, and written for the same target audience. Why hadn’t I read more? I tend to read adult literature and I didn’t feel the need to read more of HP, to put it simply. It was nothing against Rowling. But I was intrigued by what she would write when it came time to move on. It was clear she was a good story-teller, but would she be able to get to grips with something aimed at adults? This always strikes me as a strange question. The assumption always seems to be that if you can do something for a kids audience you won’t be able to translate it to an older group but there’s no reason why not. It’s certainly something I had thought about. Before How To Fill A Black Hole I had always been writing about adult subject matter (albeit in script form rather than prose) and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.
Anyway, I picked up the book and got stuck in. It seemed like there was an early statement of intent. While the page numbers were still in their teens there had already been a glimpse of naked breasts as well as some upper-end swearing (with some F’s and a C thrown around). Rowling was clearly making sure we knew this was adult material and a world away from what she had written before.
What also became clear was that Rowling has a brilliant sense of character, bringing out the inner lives of her subjects vividly. I immediately recognised who these people were, I could picture them and understand how they lived their lives. These weren’t hollow shells fulfilling a role in a story, they were people living in a village; their actions were real, they were what these people would do; their interactions were wholly believable. And this is crucial to the story Rowling is telling, which essentially is a butterfly effect piece: an event occurs in the first few pages and we follow the way the chain of events envelops a disparate group of characters.
The story concerns a vacancy on the parish council for the (fictional) West Country village of Pagford due to the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother. The council is currently deadlocked over a number of issues concerning the ownership and running of an estate known as The Fields, an area ‘true Pagfordians’ look down upon. The identity of the new councillor could decide the future of the estate. One simplistic way of looking at this might be to describe it as Miss Marple meets The Wire, though while there’s a death at the centre of the story, it’s not murder.
This backdrop allows Rowling the opportunity to write something of a ‘state of the nation’ piece showing all points of view regarding how underprivileged areas and people should be treated and whose responsibility they are. It’s the kind of thing that is rarely seen in this country (well – I’ve rarely seen, but I’m nowhere near as widely read as perhaps I should be). I have seen pointed out elsewhere that Rowling is in a pretty unique position having spent a proportion of her life in almost every strata of British society, and it seems she has taken on a position to comment on all of these.
(It also appears clear that she has a view on who is right and who is in the wrong, but given that this conforms to my own opinions, this may just be my reading of the text.)
There have been complaints that the book is too bleak a portrait, that every character is miserable and that life always offers some light, some laughs, along the way. I have to say that this was not my interpretation but that I can see how such views could be derived. Rowling’s characters rarely have good things to say (or think) about each other, be they husband and wife or vowed enemies and certainly one could view their portrayal as a depressing commentary on middle England, but I prefer to think of it as a richly dark and tragic comedy. Even so, the desire for light seems a view coloured (at least slightly) by the Harry Potter stories. Granted, these became bleak as they went on, and there is no one in Pagford who can be called the true personification of evil in the same way as he who may not be named, but even so, there was generally fun to be had along the way with the Weasley twins, with the new teachers and new spells, and with Quiddich. You will not find the same kind of entertainment on offer here, it’s true.
Some reviews have looked down on the quality of the writing but for me this was unfair and, indeed, petty. I am always going to side with a good story well told over pages of flowery language, and if you’re coming to this looking for flowery language (which I doubt many readers are) then you’ll leave disappointed. But Rowling does succeed in telling a very good story, drawing the reader into the inner lives of her characters, making them feel the pain and the heartache suffered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s especially good at writing the inner lives of her younger protagonists, making sense of the often nonsensical teenage years and yearnings, the way the raging hormones can push you into saying or doing things you know you shouldn’t.
This is a vividly created world and the occasional weak metaphor is no reason to dismiss it. But that said, one of the lines I have seen criticised was one that stood out for me as something to be celebrated:
“Krystal’s slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned.”
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the writing (and my taste) from that. Granted, there are weak lines (“But then came the hour than changed everything” is overblown for a moment that just pushed the story onwards, like so many other moments in the book), but for me the individual lines are not what matters here, it is the greater whole, not the individual brushstrokes but the picture painted, and Rowling has created a rich tapestry of early 21st century middle England.