Archive for November 16th, 2012

November 16, 2012

J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy

Shorter version: not as awful as some of the quotes made it sound, but still weak.

Longer version (forthcoming post): why does Rowling hate fat people so much?

This appeared over the weekend in the Sunday Guardian.


A casual vacancy, according to Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration (quoted at the start of every chapter of J.K Rowling’s new book), is said to have occurred when a councillor’s seat is vacated during the term of office due to the councillor’s disqualification, resignation or death. Such a situation befalls the council of the small town of Pagford when councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly of an aneurysm.

Fairbrother’s death has far greater implications for Pagford than it might first appear – potentially affecting even the limits of the town. The Fields, a council estate populated by people from a distinctly different social class to most of Pagford, technically comes under the purview of the town. For a long time now, various members of the council have been trying to have the Fields declared a part of a nearby city instead. Fairbrother, himself a former resident of the Fields, led the faction in favour of keeping the area within the town.

Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy uses the politically fraught atmosphere after the councillor’s death to tell the story of the interlocking lives of a number of residents of a small town, all of whom have in some way been touched by Barry Fairbrother. At one end of the social scale is Krystal Weedon, one of Fairbrother’s pet projects. The daughter of a drug addict and frequently in trouble at school, Krystal is also the backbone of the school rowing team and is singlehandedly trying to look after her baby brother lest social services take him away. At the other end are the Mollisons, socially aspiring snobs and Fairbrother’s rivals on the council, who are seemingly possessed of every possible vice; Howard is fat, Shirley is homophobic, both are racist.

Indeed, a large portion of The Casual Vacancy seems dedicated to showing us just how unpleasant and how banal its characters’ lives are. They speak and think in cliché; “Christ, it puts everything in perspective though,” sighs Miles Mollison. “Goes to show, doesn’t it,” says Simon Price (“portentuously,” in case the reader somehow missed the point).

No one here is entirely pleasant. Parminder Jawanda, Fairbrother’s ally on the council, may have the right politics (and it’s always clear what those are) but she is a terrible mother to her youngest daughter. Kay Bawden, a social worker, clings desperately to a relationship that is over. Simon Price is abusive and violent; his wife Ruth enables and excuses his behaviour.

Even the characters who live in the Fields don’t escape this treatment. Worse still, as readers who cringed through some of Hagrid’s speeches in the Harry Potter books will be alarmed to hear, Rowling has chosen to try to render their accents phoenetically. Presumably the rest of the residents of Pagford speak with crisp RP accents.

The only characters who emerge from all of this as people are the children. Each of the teenaged characters in The Casual Vacancy feels (like most teenagers, presumably) powerless and isolated, and all of them are victimised and disgusted by the behaviour of the adults around them. Yet the entire focus of the book is on these young people; from the debate about schooling that divides the council to the mysterious hacking of the council website that allows the teenagers to influence their town’s politics – to the tragic double funeral at the end of the book. Adults are mocked for not being young; a grown woman who tries to dress like a girl and another who is fascinated by a boy band are both portrayed as ridiculous. In a move that will certainly date this book, the novel takes for its refrain Rihanna’s “Umbrella”. The only adult character to come out of this looking good is Barry Fairbrother himself, and he is dead.

The result of all of this is that there are two books at war within this one. The first is a structured, precise (one suspects diagrams were involved) satire about nasty, small-minded people in a small town. The other is a tragedy involving children caught up in forces they can’t entirely control. The opposition between these two results in some scenes that are frankly embarrassing – at one point the vision of evil, fat (and to be fat is treated here as a serious moral failing) Howard Mollison, receiving good medical care with his family around him is juxtaposed with that of an innocent, dead child.

One of the complaints often levelled at the Harry Potter series was that, as it grew in popularity, the books became more and more bloated. Rowling may have left behind the wands and unicorns, but The Casual Vacancy has more in common with those later Harry Potter books than one could wish. There’s probably a sharp, cutting work of social satire in here somewhere, but you’d have to hunt around to find it.