The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

>> Tuesday, July 09, 2013

TITLE: The Casual Vacancy
AUTHOR: JK Rowling

PAGES: 512
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.

Seemingly an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

The Casual Vacancy is one of the best books I've read this year. I was always going to read it at some point, but it had a very lukewarm reception, so I sort of lost some of the urgency to read it immediately. I'm very glad I finally did pick it up.

The action takes place in the small English town of Pagford, in the West Country, and opens with the death of a man called Barry Fairbrother. It turns out that Barry, who sits on the parish council, has been somehow keeping all the conflicting factions of Pagford in a precarious balance, so even before the body goes cold, war erupts.

It's tempting to compare the scope of this novel to that of Harry Potter and find it wanting. In fact, several of the reviews in big papers do exactly that, describing the stakes as small and the conflicts as banal. I can kind of see where they're coming from. I mean, the big plot thingie here is where the parish's boundary lines are drawn, for heaven's sake. See, there's this council estate, the Fields, that's only just inside the Pagford limits, and this has long stuck in the craws of many in town (such as Howard Mollison, who is head of the council, and his wife Shirley). Having the Fields being part of their jurisdiction means that Pagford has to fund things like drug clinics for the resident addicts and accept the Fields' trashy children in its lovely, well-funded school. Barry, who was born in the Fields, has been tireless in working to keep it within the Pagford jurisdiction, as he feels coming to school in Pagford was exactly what allowed him to make a success of his life. With him dead, however, Howard sees it as a perfect opportunity to put "one of ours" in his seat, and get rid of the Fields, once and for all.

So yeah, I can see that, at first sight, this looks so much smaller and unimportant than an all-out battle between good and evil. But that’s deceptive. The very type of wrangling we have here, the council spats about funding for drug clinics and catchment areas are exactly the sort of thing that can really, really affect people's lives in a practical way, even make their lives hell. And that is shown in a way that punches you straight in the gut through one of the characters, Krystal Weedon.

Krystal was born and raised in the Fields by a drug-addicted mother, and she's the very person the Mollisons think of when explaining to themselves why they need to get rid of that horrid place. She’s not some sort of idealised character, the noble girl who has the misfortune of being born in a horrible situation. Krystal is foul-mouthed and aggressive, will say the most horrible stuff and does not help her own cause at all. But as a reader, you completely understand how and why she got to that point, and so did Barry. Barry saw through her attitude and to the real person underneath. He insisted she joined the school's rowing team and became a bit of a mentor to her. With Barry dead, though, it seems like any slim chances Krystal had of a halfway good life will disappear, as soon as the Mollisons get their way. Krystal quite simply broke my heart. In fact, if Krystal doesn’t break your heart then I don’t care to know you.

Is this preachy? Yes, it certainly is. It's an angry, angry book. Rowling does have her very strong opinions on social issues, and she makes them very clear here. It's almost like she was taking some sort of challenge with Krystal, trying to make her as big a bugbear as possible. If you think teenage girls who get pregnant to get council housing are what is destroying this country, then you'd better stay away from this book, as the most horrible characters are exactly like you (also, fuck you). My own opinions tend to align with Rowling's, so instead of outrage, this inspired righteous anger.

Krystal might be one of the bigger characters here, but the best way to describe this is that it's a big ensemble piece, with the only really central character being Barry, who, even dead, casts a long shadow. There are a lot of characters here, and Rowling brings them all to life. Many of them (I would even say most) are very unpleasant, which is something that would normally feel a bit tedious to me, and make me not want to read the book, because my brain will just stop seeing them as realistic characters. The thing is, even these unpleasant, horrible people are unpleasant and horrible in really interesting ways, ways that made them feel all too real. Yes, there is quite a bit of caricature here, but there's so much truth at the centre of every single character and their interactions, that I was gripped.

It's not a happy book, this one. I wanted to feel hopeful, close the book knowing that Krystal would get a happy ending, that Howard Mollison wouldn’t be able to take over the council and the people in the Fields would get the help they needed. But as I was reading, I knew I shouldn’t feel too hopeful. The book felt like a “state of the nation” novel, and we all know that, in reality, the mean Torys do take over, and that when they come to power they will give themselves and their friends massive tax cuts and will try as hard as they can to make the lives of those less fortunate as miserable as possible.

So yeah, this made me sob. But as I did, I didn’t feel at all manipulated. When bad things happened here, it didn’t feel like Rowling was doing it to get an emotional reaction. It felt organic. These things happened because they needed to happen, because it was the only way they could go. It’s bad, as it must be, but I liked the tiny amount of hope Rowling put in at the end. Again, it felt organic and rang true, something that possibly could happen, and put in such a way that it was my mind that did most of the work.

MY GRADE: An A. Fantastic.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Tom Holland. He was absolutely brilliant. I really can't see how it could have been done better. Also, I was very glad I’d gone for the audiobook when I leafed through my friend’s paper copy to have a look at how the names were spelled (huh, it’s Krystal Weedon, when in my mind it was Crystal Wheedon). Anyway, seeing the way the Weedons’ accents were rendered on the page, I was relieved to have had Tom Holland just reading it out to me. It would have been hard work to read.


Maili 9 July 2013 at 17:01  


I wasn't sure whether to get it (I never read her Potter series), but spotted your earlier comment that you were reading this, so I waited (as we have a similar taste in books). Glad to know it's worth getting.

Darlynne,  9 July 2013 at 19:46  

I am quite intrigued, loved your review and your parenthetical comment. The thing holding me back is that I may not be able to deal with my own righteous anger. But I'm still thinking about it.

Rosario 10 July 2013 at 06:16  

Maili: Probably a good thing you haven't read Harry Potter. I think for many people, they just haven't been able to get over the expectations that it would be somehow similar. I hope you... well, enjoy it is not necessarily the world... think it's good is probably better!

Darlynne: Hah! I was worried I was going a bit too far with that, but it's something I feel really, really strongly about. I know what you mean about the anger. With some books, I've had to read them 10 pages at a go, otherwise I'd get too angry. I think the audiobook helped, in this case.

Darlynne,  14 July 2013 at 15:43  

Rosario, did you see this article in the NYT?

Rowling managed to pull off what she couldn't here, in terms of acclaim and anonymity. The reviews were universally excellent and now she's been revealed as the author. I feel badly for her because I'd be willing to bet that the snark train is going to roll into town. I'd like to be wrong.

Rosario 15 July 2013 at 06:15  

Darlynne: I saw that on the news, and then immediately went and used this month's audiobook credit. Unfortunaely, even within that newscast, the attacks had started. They had a commentator on who started going on about how she'd published it with her same agent and editor and publisher, so it wasn't as if she'd just sent in a manuscript anonymously, and blah, blah, blah. Oh, shut up.

It's interesting that she publishes two books within a few months of each other, and her writing is widely panned by critics when they know it's her, but raved about when it's under a male name, isn't it? The other thing is that she apparently didn't sell very well as Galbraith (they were talking about 500 hardcovers sold!). So we could also conclude no one pays any attention to critics, I guess.

Darlynne,  15 July 2013 at 22:14  

It isn't unusual for a first-time (allegedly) writer to receive little promotion from the publisher; the occasions where they hype a debut book are not common as a percentage of books published. It's possible the publisher flew under-the-radar on this, but we'll never know. Plus, hardbacks are just so damn expensive.

But you're absolutely right about the panning and raving of a very fickle public/reviewing world. It's just mean-spirited if reviewed with anything other than an eye to the writing.

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