I Believe in J. K. Rowling – A Review of The Casual Vacancy
July 20, 2013 § 8 Comments
With the recent revelation that Jo Rowling has decided to try her hand at a detective novel, we thought it might be prudent to revisit her first novel for adults – The Casual Vacancy.
When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former “Fields” resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard Mollison is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual
vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.
Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.
This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin addict. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be most affected by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.
A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done masterfully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity that is both fitting and highly confronting.
She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him. He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’ – 494
And while the novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the heroine of the story.
Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but is the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.
I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.
Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.