The Casual Vacancy represents a decisive break from Rowling's back catalogue.
But if The Casual Vacancy is ambitious in its scope and themes, it is determinedly unadventurous in its style and mode. It is a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention–bound way.
Rowling relies on stock situations and verbal clichés. If important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as “but then came the hour that changed everything” irritate you, this is probably not the novel for you. But, equally, it offers something that more stylish highbrow fiction often does not or will not: a chance to lose yourself in a dense, richly peopled world.
This is a traditional, somewhat retro English novel. Set in the “pretty little town of Pagford” in the West Country, it is a study of provincial life with a large cast and multiple, interlocking plots, drawing inspiration from such writers as Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell and, perhaps most of all, George Eliot. The tone is empathetic but censorious and slightly didactic, using the plot to show that wickedness rebounds on both the wicked and the virtuous, leaving us all sadder and wiser at the end. The only obvious parallels with the Harry Potter books are that, like them, it focuses on teenagers and a strong dislike of mean, unsympathetic, small–minded folk animates it. The inhabitants of Pagford – shopkeepers, curtain–twitchers, Daily Mail readers – are mostly hateful Muggles, more realistic versions of the Dursleys, the awful family who kept poor Harry stashed in the cupboard under the stairs. The book has already been dubbed Mugglemarch.
Behind its tourist–friendly façade – the hanging baskets, the war memorial, the scrubbed cottages – Pagford is of course a hotbed of seething antagonism, rampant snobbery, sexual frustration and ill–disguised racism. “Old Pagford”, for instance, finds it hard to forgive the “brownness, cleverness and affluence” of its spiky Sikh GP. The plot is set in motion when, on the third page, its hero, Barry Fairbrother, falls down dead in the car park of the “smug little golf club”; “smug” and “complacent” are words that crop up again and again.
His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the parish council and the forces of darkness, led by Howard Mollison, the obese delicatessen owner, see their chance to parachute in one of their own. Barry, a man of “boundless generosity of spirit”, had been the main opponent of their plan to reassign the Fields, a run–down sink estate, to the district council of the nearby city, Yarvil – thereby off–loading responsibility for its drug–addled inhabitants and driving them out of the catchment area for Pagford’s nice primary school. The election heats up when scurrilous but accurate accusations, posted by “the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”, start appearing on the council website.
≤strong≥Other drivers of the plot≤/strong≥The other main driver of the plot is Krystal Weedon, the teenaged daughter of a chaotic heroin addict from the Fields, who is outwardly aggressive but actually doing a good job of single–handedly raising her neglected little brother. Barry, who grew up in the Fields before making good and moving up the hill to Pagford, had been a sort of mentor to her. Less altruistically, Fats, the clever and mildly sociopathic son of the deputy headmaster and the school counsellor, is pursuing Krystal. He does not think about her much as a person; he thinks of “those splendid breasts, that miraculously unguarded vagina”.
Judging by the early reviews, people are shocked that the author of ≤em≥Harry Potter≤/em≥ could have written something as bleak as the Weedon family. But these sections of the book are a little too laborious and programmatic to be truly harrowing: like a detective series dutifully dealing with “social issues”, it seems to come at the underclass story through what we already know from journalism, or from social workers, rather than inhabiting it from the inside.
Rowling is impressively unsentimental and has clearly done her research. But although there are some viscerally horrible touches, these passages do not feel fully alive. Perhaps that is partly because the Fields characters are handled with the tweezers of old–fashioned literary convention: whereas the others speak in rounded standard English, they use a kind of generalised, Dickensian lower–order speak that owes more to written convention than anything real: “I takes Robbie to the nurs’ry”; “Tha’s norra fuckin’ crime”; “No, shurrup, righ’?”
Personally, I found it far more convincingly bleak in its more satirical sections dealing with the attitudes of the supposedly tolerant middle classes and their pinched and loveless relationships.
Probably the best bits of all are those featuring teenagers, particularly boys. Fats, an adolescent existentialist ruthlessly searching for “authenticity”, is a memorable character: he has made the unnerving discovery that, in his age group, being immune to embarrassment is almost like a superpower. Rowling is said to have drawn on her own experiences of growing up in genteel West Country villages where she was reportedly moderately unhappy, listening to the Smiths and desperate to escape.
Readable, saleable, everyday useful prose
By and large, as Fay Weldon put it in 2003, Rowling writes “readable, saleable, everyday useful prose”. But there is a persistent sense in ≤em≥The Casual Vacancy≤/em≥ that the language is being strained for fine effects and not doing quite what Rowling wants it to do. The GP, we are told, “hated sudden death”, which seems an odd statement to make.
The metaphors and similes often slip away from her. One character’s sexual performance is “as predictable as a Masonic handshake”; another clings on to her partner like “an aggressive and threatening barnacle”; the news of Barry’s death radiates out, “halo–like”, from the hospital. You can see what she is getting at in all three cases. But Masonic handshakes are not predictable unless you happen to be a Mason they are mysterious and faintly sinister; barnacles are not threatening or aggressive; and haloes do not radiate outwards – they sit on saints’ heads or surround planets.
For Rowling’s fans, this is probably beside the point. They will be in it for the plot, which is big, engrossing and runs like clockwork. Like the Potter novels, the book is extremely efficiently organised beneath the busy surface. True, the narrative requires a fair amount of artificial contrivance, is a little predictable and lurches into melodrama in the final straight – but this kind of story probably demands that. More problematic for the fans, I suspect, is that ≤em≥The Casual Vacancy≤/em≥ has none of the Potter books’ warmth and charm. It is a pretty sour story in which all the characters are either fairly horrible, or suicidally miserable, or dead. Even Barry is a terrible disappointment to his wife.
People have come up with all sorts of explanations for Harry Potter’s popularity with grown–up readers, from the obvious – the escapist attractions of the minutely invented fantasy world – to the grandiose: Western adults are stuck in an eternal adolescence. But one of them, I suspect, is that people still enjoy reading about good people and seeing them rewarded – something that more respectable novels seldom offer these days. If that is the case, then Rowling might see a backlash over the next few months. –© Guardian News & Media 2012