There’s no question that The Casual Vacancy will be the most talked about book of 2012. JK Rowling’s first foray into writing for an adult audience, we’ve now known about the existence of this book for years. And the fact that almost no one was allowed to get their hands on a review copy, combined with an international embargo, meant that excitement and anticipation for it was whipped up into a form that caused several members of the public to swear at me when I refused to sell it to them before the embargo. So is it worth the wait?
When Barry Fairbrother, a likeable member of the local council, dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm, the small town of Pagford is thrown into turmoil. Without the seemingly irreplaceable Barry, the town begins to turn on itself, pitting resident against resident as an historically divisive issue rears its ugly head. As secrets come out and lives irrevocably changed in the superficially peaceful town, events are also forcing change in the neighbouring council estate housing. Nothing will ever be the same again.
A word of warning – if you don’t like books with unlikeable characters, this is not the novel for you. Just as Tsiolkas’ The Slap exaggerated unappealing characters to prove a point about contemporary Australian society, so too does Rowling populate Pagford with people I hope I never meet. Howard, the ostensible mayor of Pagford, treats his daughter-in-law like a piece of meat, despite having a wife watching him. Gavin, Barry’s best friend, has been stringing along a social worked from London who has moved to London with her sixteen-year-old daughter just to be closer to him. Krystal, the local wild girl, has a heroin addict for a mother and a violent temper that has resulted in several lost teeth at school.
I assume everyone who’s read the book has an opinion about who is the worst character in the novel, but there was no contest for me, and I will fight you all if you disagree. I’m not sure I can recall a time when I’ve felt more anger towards a fictional character than when I was reading any passage containing Simon Price, father to Andrew ‘Arf’ Price, ,husband to Ruth. This is a man who torments his youngest son Paul by constantly referring to him as ‘Pauline’; who calls his son a “fucking little shit” on too many occasions to count; who beats his entire family when it is discovered that their new computer is stolen. Paul is on the receiving end of these attacks so often, he develops nosebleeds on the way to school because he is so stressed.
It is unsurprising, then, that Andrew should be the one to initiate the Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother handle that begins to haunt the worryingly poorly secured website of the local council. So outraged that his father would consider standing for local government – and worried that his father’s crazy would become public knowledge – Andrew takes to hacking the website to anonymously vent his rage. Once this enters into the public consciousness, two other teenagers take up the technology with which they are frighteningly familiar, and do the same to their own parents. The trick gets a little old third time around, but the effects remain as devastating as the first time. In fact, the role of “cyberbullying” (a phrase I desperately hate) is examined quite closely here, perhaps highlighting the seemingly never-ending cycle of bullying humanity at which humanity seems so well-versed taking on a new and worrying form. One of the few people in the novel who seems designed to elicit sympathy is Sukhvinder, a young Sikh girl who is bullied mercilessly for her physical appearance, driving her to self-harm. Her mother and father seem blissfully unaware of this, worrying more about their older children getting into university. Her antagonising bully is Fats, the son of Colin Wall, the deputy headmaster, who was good friends with Barry. Fats, incidentally, was one of the many characters in the novel I was on the verge of liking, but then goes and ruins it all by being a complete and utter dick to Sukhvinder over Facebook, and indeed, in real life.
Like all good British novels, class is central to the way in which characters act and react to the events around them. We have to turn to the daughter of a heroin addict for any glimmer of hope in this quagmire of petty and parochial infighting that seems to plague the middle- and upper-class residents of the town. In an interview with Jennifer Byrne last week, Rowling mentioned that a potential title for the novel had been What Do We Do About Krystal? And, of course, this is the moral quandary central to the novel: how do we, as middle- and upper-class people, deal with drug-addicts who have fallen into a hole of substandard living conditions and welfare dependency, particularly when they live next door to us? Most of the people in Rowling’s book simply want to brush the problem away – out of sight, out of mind. Rowling does not offer any concrete suggestions for improvement – and I don’t think anyone should expect an author to come up with a problem to a deeply intractable social issue – other than to ask us for more sympathy, more time to properly understand the underlying issues surrounding these people and their lifestyle.
The novel is not perfect. As with all books over about 300 pages, I think it drags a little, and could do with a little pruning. Having said that, the cast of characters is huge – almost too huge – so without cutting out some of the subplots, I’m not sure what she could do to resolve the problem. The pacing, too, seems a little off. Something like a hundred pages are dedicated to going through the town, examining the reactions of each and every member of the cast. And then the election itself turns out to not be the climax of the novel at all, coming before the third act even begins. Then there’s an exceptionally odd town council meeting which probably could have been the end, but isn’t – by a long shot. And then there’s the end, which actually is quite touching, though I should warn you, in no way optimistic.
It’s been hard to find a review of this novel that doesn’t mention Harry Potter. I’ve tried to redress this problem, but there are one or two points I want to make about it before I finish. Many reviewers seem shocked that Rowling has written a novel that isn’t anything at all like Harry – The Casual Vacancy has sex, a lot of swearing, and a whole load of drug taking. But all of this is superficial. Thematically, it seems like the logical next step for Rowling. Her primary concern in both works is mortality, and she has admitted as much in interviews. I don’t know why people are that surprised at The Casual Vacancy – there were hints of wider concerns about closed-mindedness and parochialism in Potter. All one has to do is read Chapter Two of Philosopher’s Stone to see the Dursley’s lock their nephew in a broom cupboard for fear of his ‘difference’ being discovered by their neighbours. I mean, that’s pretty heavy stuff, even for a kid’s book. No longer shackled by a huge child-oriented audience, it feels like Rowling is letting loose with ideas that have been bubbling below the surface for a long time.
The Casual Vacancy is a blistering and angry attack on the parochial and superficial mindset that seems to infect middle England. It is a confronting novel, and often makes for unpleasant reading. In many ways, though, this is the strength of the novel – slapping its readers in the face with social realism can only make us questions our own views, and start a wider conversation about the kind of society in which we want to live.