Review: The Casual Vacancy

JK Rowling (read September 2017)

What do you do if you’ve an author who’s just finished writing a planet-rogering multi-book series that has become an icon of modern popular culture? Perhaps not unexpectedly, you try to do something a little bit different, just to prove that you’re not the one-trick pony some might grumble you are.

The Casual Vacancy is definitely different. If the Harry Potter series is a triumph of the intricacies of plot, then this book is almost its polar opposite. For quite a long time, nothing very much happens, at least in terms of actual events. But in terms of internal drama, there is an awful lot going on. If you were going to deploy just a single word to describe this novel, you’d have to drop on psychodrama as the prime candidate; it fits.

The events of the novel stem from a single chance event at its start: the death of Barry Fairbrother, local councillor, as the result of an aneurysm. This death creates a vacancy on the local Parish Council, and sets in train a series of events that ends very shockingly indeed.

Like the Potter books, The Casual Vacancy talks about aspects of the rather less pleasant side of British society. In HP it was the portrait of the Dursleys and their immobile, conservative suburban mores. Here the picture is more rural, but focuses similarly on the power and values of the middle classes. Here, the focus is the Mollinson family, a long long-established family in the village of Pagford, which to the inattentive observer would look like any other sleepy English commuter-belt village. Underneath, however, it is seething with long-held resentments and divisions.

Many of these reasons centre around The Fields, a housing estate that sits between Pagford and the nearby town of Yarvil. Some in the village would love nothing more than to have The Fields wiped away like a stubborn stain on a work surface, others try to empathise with the lives of the mostly disadvantaged families living there.

A number of candidates throw their hats into the ring to fight for the seat, and the grim, dirty business of local politics is picked apart.

Running in parallel are the lives of some of the village’s children: Stuart “Fats” Wall, son of the school headmaster; his friend, Andrew “Arf” Price; Sukhvinder Jawala, the daughter of the local GP; Gaia Bawden, newly arrived with her social worker mother, and finally Krystal Weedon, Fields resident, loudly-proclaimed troublemaker and daughter of heroin addict, Terri.

Things take a more serious turn, and more quickly when anonymous messages from “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” begin to appear on the parish council website, making allegations about the private lives of some of the candidates. The effects of the messages are profound and threaten to destroy the families they effect, and we see their aftermath in vivid, unflinching detail.

What is surpsing is that she does seem to understand the minds of teenage boys better than you might expect. Stuart Wall very much sees himself as a Holden Caulfield figure, attempting to maintain a sneering ironic detachment from his circumstances, and an obsession with authenticity. He ends up anything but. Andrew is brow-beaten by a violent and unstable father. It’s in this context that much of the novel’s initially surprising sexually explicit content appears, and again, Rowling does not flinch, especially when she describes a particularly unpleasant rape; it’s not nice, but it’s necessary.

It’s not an easy read at all, but it is compelling. The end is probably the most difficult thing of all, with a conclusion so gut-churning it did make me feel sick to my stomach. It is emotionally wrenching, but it’s meant to be. Weirdly, in amongst the misery, there are little hopeful shoots, reasons to think that people can be decent and kind. In these times it sometimes feels hard to believe. It’s clear where Rowling sits in this discussion, and it’s clear to see the characters she most closely identifies with.