J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, met with huge commercial success (of course) and mixed reviews, many glowing but many disappointed, although I wonder if they were just hoping for more Horcruxes. I waited for the furor(e) to die down and for the book to come out in paperback, reading her wonderful detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, first, so my expectations for Vacancy may have been different than those of reviewers encountering it fresh off the last Harry Potter book. (Witness the savage takedown of the book offered by the New York Times‘ Michiko Katukani.)
I thought it was fantastic, melding the classic British literary formula of centering a wide cast of characters in a single English town with the modern, wry realism of small-town novels like those of Richard Russo. The Guardian review, also slightly negative, jokingly referred to the book as “Mugglemarch,” although I’m not clear why that would be a bad thing. George Eliot’s magnum opus has to be the model for countless novels of this order, just as Ann Patchett says half-seriously that each of her novels is her own attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. What it lacks, if anything, is a truly sympathetic central character; Harry Potter, who lost his parents at age one, sustained a miserable childhood, and even at Hogwarts was hounded by death threats from without and spiteful classmates from within, was never pathetic. He was a clear hero, flawed and complete, the Boy You Could Root For. There are many characters within A Casual Vacancy for whom you will feel great pity, and there are probably a few in whom you’ll recognize friends, family members, or perhaps bits of yourself, but there are no heroes, and no one behaves heroically, not until it’s a little too late.
The small English town of Pagford is rocked by the sudden death, due to a cerebral aneurysm, of beloved town council member and father of four Barry Fairbrother, which creates the “casual vacancy” of the title and leads to much political jockeying to fill his open seat. Pagford is split down the middle on the subject of The Fields, a low-income housing community that puts a financial drain on the town and is home to some petty criminals and lower-status residents, including the Weedon family, with teenager Krystal, destitute because of her mother’s chronic drug addiction. The pro-Fields council members, which include Dr. Jawanda and included Barry, want to keep the Fields under Pagford’s budget, while the anti-Fields contingent, led by the fatuous Howard Mollison, wants to dump them on neighboring Yarvil. Mollison views himself as the town’s de facto mayor and leading citizen, thanks in part to his successful market and the opening of a new cafe that employs a trio of the adult characters’ teenaged children.
The political intrigue increases when those children of these various “grown-ups” – and I use the term only the biological sense here – begin posting revelations anonymously on the town council’s badly-managed website. Those attacks form the bridge between the town council storyline and the various goings-on of the kids, from sex to drugs to rape to self-mutilation, which form the second layer of subplots. The idea that the Kids Are Not All Right and that their parents really have little idea, along with the kids generally knowing more of what the parents are up to than the adults think, is a common trope in modern literature and television (Dawson’s Creek would not have existed without it), but Rowling deploys it well by at least making the kids flawed in their own ways. They’re still kids, not wise beyond their years, just bearing the split of wisdom and ignorance that all teenagers carry (and many of us carried into our 20s … and 30s…), so they make huge mistakes too, ones that carry consequences for themselves and their parents. Posting the anonymous attacks to try to slow down their parents’ political ambitions have consequences an adult would foresee but an angry son or daughter might not – outing an affair, revealing a theft, divulging a secret attraction, these are words that cannot be borne and one by one they slow or derail their parents’ plans.
Rowling takes a grim view of the provincial provincials who populate her novel, and she blankets the book in coarse language to describe their selfish and self-destructive doings, some of which made me wince and wonder if she was perhaps overdoing it to shed the children’s-author label. (I hope not; Rowling’s prose has never bothered me as it has many readers, but in particular I’ve always appreciated her willingness to deploy her advanced vocabulary.) Her greatest gift in storycraft has always been her ability to weave unconnected subplots together into a unified conclusion – in the Harry Potter stories, every detail mattered, even across multiple books – and she’s able to do that here, but with far more morbid results. The council subplot comes to a head just as Krystal Weedon’s fractured family falls apart in the Fields, and the novel concludes with a funeral,
One character of the whole panoply emerges as a half-hero, the one truly courageous act of anyone in the whole novel coming from perhaps the least courageous character of them all, and one of the only ones to receive a full fleshing-out – perhaps why she’s the closest thing to a sympathetic protagonist in the book.
As for the common criticism that the book is “boring,” that’s always in the mind of the reader, and I can only say I was never bored – I tore through it as if it was a thriller, but I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s prose more than most readers because I find her highly descriptive style creates clear imagery in my mind as I read. The novel has very little “action” in the traditional sense, but I thought that was in many ways an homage to classic Brit lit, to which I found countless allusions in the Harry Potter series too.
If you’ve read the book, regardless of whether you enjoyed it, you’ll probably get a laugh from the Guardian‘s “digested read,” which summarizes and satirizes the book in a few hundred words.
Next up: Oh, I’m a few books behind here, but since finishing this one, I’ve read Anne Enright’s dismal Man Booker Prize-winner The Gathering>The Gathering, Caroline Blackwood’s autobiographical novella Great Granny Webster, and Walter Scott’s Waverly novel The Heart of Midlothian.