If you like epics, you’ll like The Casual Vacancy, author J.K. Rowling’s first book after the Harry Potter series. It is a story of a town rather than an individual. Rowling paints a broad canvass of many different intersecting lives set in a small English town. The plot revolves around the aftermath of the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother. An election is held to fill his seat on the local parish council. It is set in a small town racked by division and conflict, between parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor. Then someone starts posting secrets onto the internet. . .
The most notable thing about the novel is the vast array of characters. There are about 20 characters each with their own back story and the novel takes turns in seeing it from their eyes. All of these characters overlap and cross with each other. It is not a story about one character but rather 20 interconnected stories all set in the one town. So the story is variously told by Andrew a student with a crush on Gaia, whose mother Kay is dating Gavin, who works with Miles who is married to Samantha . . . and so on. Each one of these people has their own views and opinions. This would be extremely confusing in a movie but Rowling pulls it off without too much difficulty, helped by the size of the book (500 pages).
This is both the books strength and weakness. It is impressive to compose a huge list of characters and the way they interact and Rowling certainly does it well. However the downside is that not much time is spent on each character. Instead we see a series of brief glimpses, a case of quantity over quality. On the other hand, we see enough of each character. We know enough to feel we at least partially know and understand them, which is really all you need in this kind of book.
The novel is very downbeat. Almost none of the characters are happy. Everyone seems miserable in their own way. There aren’t any heroes or villains, rather a series of flawed characters. Most characters (particularly the teenagers) are capable of both kindness and cruelty. The few “good” characters are often too weak to do the right thing. Every character has their own reason why you should dislike them and also why you should like them. In contrast to Harry Potter, which was all about good versus evil, this is a question of shades of grey (no I’m not referring to that book which ruined a very good phrase). The only character that good be described as a “good” person is dead. Barry Fairbrother is seen as the only person who could overcome the divisions and the problems each character has. Now that he is dead they are lost.
The book centres on conflict. Every teenager in the book is in conflict with their parents. This is in various forms, from actual violent parents to simply rude and indifferent teens. None of the teens like their parents and the parents aren’t particularly keen on the kids. Everyone is stewing in a pot of mutual resentment and disgust. There is hardly a single happy family scene in the book. The book in some way is a story of children taking revenge on their parents. A series of anonymous messages begin appearing on the internet revealing parents secrets (kind of like that episode of the Simpsons). This is how the teens, trapped in feelings of isolation and fear, strike back. Nor are there any happy marriages. Everyone in a relationship either secretly dislikes their partner or lacks any connection with them. Everyone is isolated and alone without anyone they can trust and confide in.
The book is also a condemnation of middle class small town England. It’s easy to tell Rowling despises the petty gossip of a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. This pettiness is ridiculed in the fact that most important thing to most of the characters is who will win a seat onto the parish council, a virtually meaningless and powerless body. Rowling also takes a swipe at middle class snobbery. There is a clear division between the town and the local council estate. Rowling uses the irony of an obese man and an alcoholic woman condemning the members of the council estate for a lack of personal responsibility and self-control. The narrow-mindedness is on full display.
The Daily Mail criticised the book as “more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature”. Personally this made me go out and buy the book, but the book is not that left-wing. Sure it shows that poor people have virtues too, but it does not romanticise them. The main poor character in the novel is simultaneously a bully and a slut, but also a caring sister and a desperate child trying to survive brutal conditions. Rowling does not take sides so it’s possible to have many different views about each character.
The book does have its political moments. The election is important because the council will decide if it will continue to fund the local drug treatment clinic. It is crucial to helping local addicts get clean yet the council views through stereotypical glasses. The book deals with a lot of serious moments. One girl is pushed by bullying and sharp and indifferent parents to cut her wrists. There is casual racism towards the local Sikh family. One teenager has to deal with a violent and abusive father. Another girl struggles to support herself and her brother when her mother is a drug addict. The novel ends with a death, leaving you with an overall sombre book.
The Casual Vacancy does an excellent job of building a town. It creates a host of characters and cleverly links them together. It deals with serious issues and solid commentary on small town life. It does lack excitement and edge, but is still as good read that leaves you with much to mull over. I’d give it four out of five.