The Casual Vacancy
J K Rowling
2012 Little, Brown
The global phenomenon of Rowling’s Harry Potter series was always going to be a tough gig to beat. The Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s first novel for adults. In stark contrast to the magic of Harry Potter this 500- page novel about provincial English life has been described as ‘remorselessly gritty and mundane’. Like Potter it involves a school story but The Casual Vacancy lacks any magic or charm. It is raw in its depiction of the horrors that befall the underbelly of society that is The Fields and the shallow lower-middle class Pagford.
I have just got around to reading it after seeing an interview with Rowling a while back, in which she described this novel as a depiction of her own real life experience. It’s hard to believe, now she’s a multi-millionaire, she could have first-hand experience of the deprivation she depicts. Rowling draws on memories from a period in her life in which she found herself financially destitute, living side-by-side with neighbours like the drug-addicted Weedon characters.
I was fascinated, hailing from English working class roots myself and having experienced similar characters in my own neighbourhood and at school, caught in the underbelly; of crime, unemployment, addiction, poverty and welfare—that’s not to say that everyone on welfare is a criminal, addict, or unemployed—sadly, however, many fall through the cracks and do not break the poverty cycle, just like in The Casual Vacancy.
The story is centred around Pagford; a respectable small town in the West Country of England, and the tensions between Pagford and the sprawling council estate of The Fields that border it. When local hero Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, he leaves Pagford reeling in shock. What follows is the cracking open of this seemingly idyllic town into full-scale war: ‘Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…And the empty seat let by Barry on the Parish Council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen.’
It took me a while to get into, at first I didn’t find the characters believable and some of the accents adopted by The Fields’ characters seemed a little contrived. I also noticed my judgement coming into play, high expectations of Rowling aka ‘superstar author’. However, Rowling slowly reeled me in to the rough underbelly of the town and its characters. An omniscient narrator—a difficult feat, which is not done so often these days—tells the story from multiple perspectives, cleverly weaving all the characters together through their interaction in Pagford, centred around the school and the local council (denoted by the title and chapters) where they all diverge.
Many people find this novel too depressing, in its depiction of a society so lacking in joy, to be palatable. Child abuse, bullying, self harming, mental illness, death, drug addiction, rape and prostitution are all covered—not to mention racism, sexism, adultery and adoption, thrown in for good measure. The undertones of the book are slicked with a grey lack of hope and desperation, just like the bone-chilling wind and drizzle reminiscent of England! Yet the topics covered are a realistic cross-section of the problems and struggles faced by modern society. Just like life, not every story has the shiny happy ending we envisage, though there is a hint of transformation, of the problems faced by several characters.
Let’s start a discussion – I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.
What did you think of this novel?
Can you relate to the town, the characters and the issues they face?
Do you need a happy ending as a reader?
Do you write about your own experiences? Do you write and read about topics close to your heart, or about issues that require exploration and explanation?