So as it turns out, J.K. Rowling actually can write compelling fiction meant for adults that is not set in a magical world. So let’s get that out of the way straight up. I liked The Casual Vacancy quite a bit, in fact. It’s not without some problems, but overall, it’s a solid effort. What it is not is an easy book to read.
The Casual Vacancy is set in a fictional West Country town called Pagford (a tip of the hat to Dorothy L. Sayers? Possibly, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of that anywhere), one of those charming little places with a village square, a war memorial, a village primary school, and a ruined abbey overlooking it all. It’s adjacent to a much larger town, Yarvil, but outside their jurisdiction, governed by the Parish Council. The novel begins with the sudden death of one of the members of the Council, Barry Fairbrother, who drops dead of an aneurysm in the parking lot of the local golf club on his wedding anniversary. This causes a major flurry in the town, as Fairbrother was the champion of a local council housing estate (what in the U.S. would be called subsidized housing) straddling the border of Pagford and Yarvil. The Parish Council has long been split over the fate of “The Fields”—Barry and his supporters do not want to relinquish Pagford’s responsibility for the estate or the people who live there, while the opposition, led by Council Head Harold Mollison, would very much like to hand off the expense and the problems to the neighboring town. They view The Fields as an embarrassment and its residents a blot on their idyllic small town. The death of the charismatic Barry roils the waters of what seems like a typical small town, and what floats to the surface is anything but pretty.
This seemingly innocuous set up provides Rowling with plenty of grist for her writing mill, and she juggles the multiple points-of-view with aplomb. There are a lot of characters in this book, and they all have a view on the issue of The Fields: The Mollisons, who view themselves as First Citizens of the town; the Walls family, struggling with a difficult child and their own secret; the Jawandas, a Pakistani couple with a troubled daughter; the Prices, who all live in terror of the abusive Simon; and the Weedons, who live in The Fields. What amazed me about this was that Rowling was so easily able to get into such a variety of headspaces, from the snotty wife of Harold Mollison to the desperate Krystal Weedon to the ineffectual Colin Wall. The characters aren’t just distinct because of physical differences and where they are on the yes-or-no question of The Fields, they’re distinct because Rowling gets comfortable inside their heads and develops them seemingly effortlessly. Even more minor characters playing a less pivotal role, like social worker Kay Bawden or Miles’ business partner Gavin, are crisply defined.
The tussle over the fate of The Fields is only one fight going on in town, and decisions by Colin Wall and Simon Price to run for the vacant seat against Miles Mollison play havoc with their families. The town’s teenagers play a pivotal role in this novel as they battle their parents, and their actions have a direct influence on the obvious war between the Mollisons, who are pushing their son Miles to fill Barry’s seat on the council, and the Walls, the Jawandas, and the Prices, who all want to see the seat filled by someone more sympathetic to the occupants of The Fields or, at the very least, someone whose last name isn’t Mollison.
Rowling has, in my opinion, a real gift for writing from a teenaged point of view. Of all the characters in this book, most of whom are not very likeable, the ones who are most memorable are three teenagers. First and foremost is Fats Wall, a budding sociopath who spends a great deal of time tormenting not only his father but also Suhkvinder Jawanda. Fats is a truly troubled young man, and Rowling does an amazing job of chronicling his sociopathic tendencies, but she doesn’t make him two-dimensional—there are glimmers beneath his cool exterior that Fats is struggling with his own identity, and with his professed philosophy of not giving a damn about anyone. More sympathetic is Krystal Weedon, who is wrestling against the circumstances of her birth and her heroin-addicted mother to keep her tiny family from being ripped apart, who has lost a champion in Barry Fairbrother and realizes that she’s now on her own and has to make her own magic happen. And then there’s Andy Price, Fats’ best friend, whose sense of what is morally acceptable is blunted repeatedly by Fats’ behavior and his father Simon’s hair-trigger temper. It is their actions that ultimately upend the town as they struggle to redefine themselves by rebelling against their families and what they stand for in their minds.
What makes this novel difficult to read at times are the truly troubling relationships between the characters. Most of the adult characters are hard to like, from Harold, bloated by his own sense of self-importance, to his wife Shirley, prissy and snobby, to their son Miles, still firmly tied to his parents and unable to see how miserable his wife is as a result. Simon Price is a bully, a petty thief, and abusive. Parminder Jawanda favors her older, more accomplished children over her youngest daughter, seeing her lack of academic ability and quiet misery as a personal attack on her more accomplished parents. Colin Wall is weak, although somewhat more sympathetic, as is his wife Tessa, who struggles to keep Colin calm while ruthlessly sticking her head in the sand where Fats is concerned.
Despite the lack of likeability, though, they are interesting to read about, and buried among their stories are classic themes and a genuine examination of what to do about those who cannot fend for themselves—do we give them a hand up and the opportunity to a better life, or do we shove them under the rug and hope someone else will step up if they refuse to go away? Who really is worse off? Krystal Weedon—crass, poor, but adored by her younger brother– or Sukhvinder Jawanda, quiet, well-off, and seemingly an embarrassment to her more socially prominent mother? Fats Wall comes from a home where he’s given every chance and ends up caring for no one, only concerned with how he sees himself, whereas Andrew Price lives in constant fear of Simon’s fists, yet he cares deeply about how others see him. Nature or Nurture. Good vs. Evil. Rich vs. Poor. In the end, Rowling really has no answers for these large questions, but you could argue there are no answers for them anyway.
I had two issues with The Casual Vacancy. First, and this is characteristic of Rowling’s prose, in my opinion, she sometimes gets so caught up in her descriptions that they get away from her a bit. This could have used a bit of trimming in that department. And second, I was bothered by the decision to make Fats the adopted child of Tessa and Colin; there’s an implication there that Rowlings doesn’t handle well at all, given that Fats is a few steps short of pulling the wings off of flies. It feels a bit cheap, and a bit like a cop-out. Without giving away too much of the end of the book, she does attempt to resolve the problem she creates, but it’s not handled nearly as clearly as it could have been, which is disappointing.
As the story wound its way toward a truly shocking conclusion, certain things stood out for me besides the characters. First was the setting—Rowling absolutely gets the small town feel right: the people who go back generations, who feel that any outsider is an interloper, and the subtle snobbery that goes with that; the petty ambitions and obvious jockeying for position within some perceived hierarchy; the concern with what the neighbors will think; the desire to preserve an image of the place, no matter how false that image has become. Spot on. Also, Rowling also manages to imbue a character who dies within the first few pages of the book with as much personality as those whose lives she takes more time with. Barry Fairbrother looms over Pagford and its inhabitants like a benevolent ghost long after his funeral. It’s a remarkable trick. And finally—and this has more to do with Rowling herself than the book—if her intention was to write something as completely opposite as possible from the Harry Potter series, she certainly succeeds in that. By choosing to expose the seamier side of small town life, complete with f-bombs, drug use, domestic abuse scenes, and a rape, she makes it clear that she wants to be taken seriously as a writer of adult fiction. And so she should be. As I stated umpteen paragraphs ago, this isn’t an easy book to read. But it’s a damned good book.