I’ve just finished reading The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t in any hurry to read it because the marketing hype has really irritated me, but when my boyfriend bought me it I thought, might as well give it a go, and if it isn’t any good, well, at least everyone likes a sneery review and I can add mine to the masses who’ve churned them out.
But, BOOM! She’s done it again, and there will be no sneering here.
Following the death of local Councillor Barry Fairbrother, the parish of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Opposing factions scurry to have their candidate brought forward to fill the gap the saintly Barry left behind and put an end to the secret war that has been waged behind the lace curtains of Pagford for nearly sixty years. And as tensions reach a boiling point in the crucible of Pagford, pitting wife against husband, son against father, and almost everyone against poor Krystal Weedon; the residents are haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghost of Barry Fairbrother.
In case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear yet, this is not Harry Potter. Or, as JK Rowling might now put it, this is not Harry f—ing Potter. And yet, people will wonder how they compare, so it seems silly to ignore the subject.
Obviously, the Harry Potter books are very plot driven, usually involving some manner of quest, trials, good and evil. The Casual Vacancy is far more character driven, the impetus of the story coming from the raggle-taggle cast of at-best-flawed-at-worst-despicable characters that Rowling has so acerbically set down.
Rowling’s characterisation is brutal and brilliant. Instead of the stock characters that we came to know and love, or hate, in Harry Potter, we have a far more complex array of characters, many of which we’d recognise from our own lives; the yummy mummy yearning to be a teenager again, the weak man looking for a weaker woman to make him feel strong, the teenage cynic railing at the wold. I’m sure there are those who would argue that these are still, to an extent, stock characters. Perhaps, but the execution and Rowling’s mastery makes them feel real.
The pace of the novel may, in parts, be a little slower than some readers will appreciate. I did feel that it took a little while for me to get sucked into the quagmire of village life, but once I did I forgot that I was trying to critically read Rowling’s latest offering and got lost in the genuinely absorbing book that I was reading.
There is the odd wobble, some weird imagery and description, especially for me on p 133 when Rowling describes the sight of a tampon wrapper as being “like a rare comet”, and a teenage boy being overwhelmed by the idea that a teenage girl menstruating “this actual, physical evidence that a girl in his vicinity was having a period there and then”. This reminded me really strongly of a passage in The Virgin Suicides:
“In the trash can was one Tampax, spotted, still fresh from the insides of one of the Lisbon girls. Sissen said that he wanted to bring it to us, that it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing, you had to see it, like a modern painting or something, and then he told us he had counted twelve boxes of Tampax in the cupboard… Peter Sissen sped down the stairs, blushing, and after thanking Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, hurried off to tell us that Lux Lisbon was bleeding between the legs that very instant, while the fish flies made the sky filthy and the streetlamps came on.” The Virgin Suicides Jeffrey Eugenides
I don’t know whether this is now a common symbol of burgeoning male sexuality and I’ve missed the memo, or whether they were intended to show that, bless, teenage boys can be a bit gruesome, but the similarity struck me.
Unlike Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is overtly political. Jan Moir writing for The Daily Mail complained that it is “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.” You can see why The Daily Mail might be antsy, lots of people in the UK use the expression “they read the Daily Mail” as short hand for “they are right-wing and bigoted” and Rowling uses the same oblique reference by placing The Daily Mail in the vicinity of some of her more unpleasant characters while attacking everything the Mail stands for. Personally, I didn’t find the political aspect distressing, but that might be because it was fairly sympathetic of my general politics. Besides, since when was it a bad thing for literature to double as a social commentary?
In short, I liked it. It’s certainly a blunt instrument in a political sense, but it is a strong effort which I think has attracted undue criticism as a result of Rowling’s prior success. Adult reviewers seem to be genuinely rattled by a book which reflects a real world in which there is no Dumbledore with a wand to make things better for the deserving, by a book which dares raise the question of who can be considered deserving.
Maybe the book could have been improved. Who am I to judge? But for me, the only thing that would have made it better would have been for Rowling to dedicate the novel to David Cameron and his Big Society instead of to her husband.