I really thought that I liked J.K. Rowling. I read the Harry Potter series when I was just the right age to grow up with the characters. My sister and I used to re-read the books at Christmas, taking a break from proper reading. They are so readable, so zippy and skim-able; I can testify that it’s possible to get through the whole series in under two weeks if you have the time to kill. Alas, the days when I had that kind of free time are long gone.
I was curious about Rowling’s first non-Potter offering when it came out, but not curious enough to pick it up. But someone recently recommended it to me, so I figured it was time to get round to it.
I never realised how distinctive Rowling’s style is – The Casual Vacancy is stylistically identical to the Potter series. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has the same wonderful character development, the same minute details and emotional pin-point accuracy. The cast of this novel is large, and largely unlikeable – Rowling has a knack for the grotesque and pathetic, which makes for compelling reading. It is also very pacey; very easy to get through. I finished it in a few sittings, which is a recommendation in itself if you’re short on time.
My gripe with this book is with its politics, and to talk about this requires me to talk about the plot, in particular the ending. Apologies in advance for spoilers.
The action all happens in a small town, and amongst the members of the Parish Council. Certain elements in the council are keen to redraw the border of their constituency to cut loose a deprived council housing estate within their boundary. Some children from this estate attend the local schools and are more or less integrated into the social fabric of the town – albeit grudgingly. One of these children is a girl called Krystal, whose mother is a heroin addict. She has a younger brother, who she has effective sole responsibility for, because her mother cannot care for him. Krystal is frustrated not only by the almost insurmountable difficulties and various poverties of her home life, but also the prejudice and hostility that she comes up against at the genteel town school.
The ‘Casual Vacancy’ of the title is left when a Parish Councillor, who had been a champion of the estate and its residents, dies unexpectedly. This man had been a tireless campaigner for the rights of the people from the estate to enjoy the same privileges as the children of middle-class families in the town. Krystal had been close to him. At the end of the novel, Krystal and her brother also die.
Krystal and her brother, and before them the Councillor who had stood up for them, are problems for the Parish Council and the genteel little town. With their deaths the town discernably breathes a sigh of relief. Rather than deal skilfully and compassionately with the complex suffering and potential for growth of deprived communities, we have a strange and clumsy ending where the ‘troublemakers’ are removed and small-town life can continue with a clear conscience. It feels darkly comic. But that is the most generous interpretation.
Creating tidy endings where in life there are none, is the novelist’s burden. However, I cannot help but be dismayed that the smug little town and its residents are left intact at the end of this novel, while Krystal and her brother are swallowed up by circumstance. The middle classes blithely ignorant and uncaring, while real horror happens on their doorstep. Perhaps this is calculated to be shocking, and close to home. But I did not like the implication that a satisfactory conclusion can only be reached when we get rid of the messy people with insurmountable problems. I’m torn as to the intention. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say that Rowling wants us to feel this discomfort, and condemn the ‘resolution’ of this novel. We are not invited to sympathise with the townsfolk, more to pity them: this novel is more about the hopeless complexity of human relationships and networks – and our inevitable interdependence – than social justice.