The Casual Vacancy – by J K Rowling
There are very few bigger names in our literary world than J K Rowling – and the legacy she’s built and now has so much pressure to live up to is huge. The Casual Vacancy was a closely guarded secret, embargoed, with very little information about the plot available before the release. I, like so many people, have been wildly curious to see what Rowling is like, post-Harry. This was my take on The Casual Vacancy:
Pagford is a small town. The kind of small town that Hobartians* can probably appreciate better than most: everyone knows (or at least knows of) everyone else. Gossip is part of the framework. Things seem a little more personal, and what might be seen as a small issue in a bigger place takes on a much greater importance.
We’re introduced to some of Pagford’s residents, such as Barry Fairbrother, whose big plans for Pagford are cut somewhat short by his abrupt death of an aneurysm. Barry’s death opens a seat on the Pagford Parish Council, and opens the door to the ambitions of a number of locals. There’s Miles, the town’s First Son, looking to follow in his father Howard’s footsteps. Colin, the local school principal, is hoping to continue the work Barry started. And Simon just wants a piece of the action.
There are many, many other characters in The Casual Vacancy – to the point where I was still confused about who was who and where they fit in 200 pages in. This was frustrating but was also actually the central beauty of the Casual Vacancy: how intricately the people fit together. It’s an authentic reflection of a town of this size. For example: Krystal is going out with Fats. His best friend is Andrew, who has a crush on the new girl Gaia, whose mum, Kay, moved to Pagford to be closer to her new boyfriend, Gavin. Kay’s also a social worker who works with families in the contentious housing development on the outskirts of Pagford, known as The Fields, where one of her cases is that of Krystal and her Mum, Terri.
Rowling has an excellent ability to create characters with emotional depth. No matter how wretched the character, there is (usually) a saving grace, something that mitigates their horrible traits. I also really enjoy the way Rowling uses language to furnish a scene with the right feeling of joy, absurdity or despair. I teared up during the final chapters.
I had trouble with The Casual Vacancy, though, for a couple of reasons. It’s not the kind of book I’d usually read – small town drama with too many plot lines to follow, really insignificant problems faced by petty, small-minded people. I felt like Rowling drew her characters with a full understanding of how petty and limited these people were, but even the idea that this was a peek into the minds of this type of person rather than an endorsement of such wasn’t enough to distract me from how unpleasant they all were. Additionally, the tone of The Casual Vacancy is overwhelmingly bleak. It’s definitely black comedy – but it’s very light on the comedy. I don’t need a happy ending, complete with musical number: but I’d have been reassured by any of the characters having arcs at all, or by anything being resolved. Some of the plot lines that were introduced with our myriad characters didn’t seem to be addressed by the ending at all.
But perhaps that’s the point of this book: to expose, to lift the lid on a small town’s small problems and small people and let them fester in the sun. If that was her intent, then it was well done: Pagford certainly soured for me after a few days in the open.
The main questions I’m left with here are for me: given how much I loved Harry Potter, his world, his friends, his enemies, and his story, how fair is it for me to bring expectations into my reading of Rowling’s new, completely different novel? And yet, how can I not? I can’t forget about what came before, and I wonder if I might have enjoyed The Casual Vacancy more if I hadn’t spent so long growing up with Harry. As it is, I might just have to revisit The Boy Who Lived.
I feel like I’ve yelled at my parents…
Have you read Rowling’s new offering? What books were you desperate to love that just didn’t work for you?
* Hobartians: Those living in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, the lovely small town I call home.