‘The Casual Vacancy’
by J.K. Rowling, Little, Brown ($35 hardcover); Kindle ($14.99)
Joanne Rowling is a woman with a ton of baggage. As her own writer bio on Amazon states, she’s the author of the “bestselling Harry Potter series of seven books…. which have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide…. and have been turned into eight blockbuster films.” Even in that sentence, one can read unnecessary hype, the sort of boasting which surely a very rich author does not need to do.
A recent profile in the New Yorker by Ian Parker, timed to emerge just as her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was published, filled in some of the vague outline of the Rowling story with some troubling details. I was familiar with the now-mythical story of Rowling writing the first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh café while she was an impoverished single mother. Due to some astute research by Parker, mingled with the sense that he obviously did not like her much, we get the picture of a worried, perfectionistic woman—the owner of several houses—now married to a doctor; a control freak who dropped her first agent once she became powerful enough; an introverted, depressed young woman who lost her beloved mother to multiple sclerosis when Rowling was only 25; a single mother who was literally thrown out by her first husband, a Portuguese journalist, when her first child was a baby; and someone who is estranged from her father and was bitterly hurt when he sold her personally inscribed first edition Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at auction for $48,000 a few years back.
Rowling has always been treated rather dubiously by the media. For example, Parker questions the “impoverished, isolated young writer” legend, implying that Rowling came back to England from Portugal with a master plan to write the Harry Potter books; she had the series all mapped out in her mind and was helped by family and friends to get by for the few years it took to sell the first book. And indeed by 1996, Bloomsbury had picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and the rest is history.
I resisted Harry Potter at first because of the hype. But that English paperback edition of Philosopher’s Stone, which my mother sent me in the late 90s, was a charming, slim volume (unlike the later bloated hardcovers published by Scholastic), which drew me in. I loved the freshness of it; I loved Harry as outsider. Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Dumbledore: it was an enchanted world where bad things happened, too… bad things were always lurking on the outskirts of Hogwarts and infiltrating the school. The insider/outsider dynamic of the Harry Potter books worked for me, as it did for so many others. Rooting for Harry and his gang allowed readers to feel like insiders, the insiders we never were, the heroes we were never allowed to become. There was something undeniably therapeutic and powerful about these books. And Rowling, who has said she loved the Smiths, my own favorite subversive band of the ’80s, was clearly working out issues of her own with this series.
Still, I never thought Rowling would actually write another book. Why should she? She’s wealthy, she’s respected, what more would there be to do? When I heard she was writing a novel and when I found out it was called The Casual Vacancy and saw the stylish red cover with the checkmark, my first reaction was to think, oh dear, she’s writing some sort of social comedy of manners set in London—something about a vacant flat, no doubt…
With her habitual penchant for secrecy, Rowling kept everyone guessing about her intent, which of course is a dangerous thing to do, because people have their expectations and they also don’t enjoy being wrong. I’m sure most of her readers expected Rowling to write a “nice” book. OK, an adult book, but still, a nice literary novel that didn’t rock the boat.
Well, consider the boat rocked! Casual Vacancy is currently #1 in literary fiction on Kindle, but its rating is a miserable three stars. The minute the book went on sale at the end of September readers noticed problems with the font—which was hurriedly fixed—but complaints about the extortionate Kindle price raged and people gave it one star just for that. (Update: the price has now dropped to $14.99.) And then there were the readers who simply hated it. Who weren’t prepared for the type of book it was—filled with sex, emotional and physical violence, death, bad language, and nasty characters. A common complaint was that there wasn’t a likeable character in the whole book. There wasn’t anyone to root for.
The few short excerpts that I’d initially seen of The Casual Vacancy seemed jarring and awkward. They didn’t give me any indication of the power of this book. Frankly, I see The Casual Vacancy as a 19th-century novel, both for its length and the slow intimacy with which we come to know the characters. The small, picturesque town of Pagford, where most of the action is set, is a character, too. Howard Mollison, the fat, avuncular proprietor of the local upscale delicatessen, sees it as *his* little patch of England:
To Howard, his birthplace was much more than a collection of old buildings, and a fast-flowing, tree-fringed river, the majestic silhouette of the abbey above or the hanging baskets in the Square. For him, the town was an ideal, a way of being; a micro-civilization that stood firmly against a national decline.
But Rowling, it becomes clear, does not see Pagford as idyllic. Pagford, in fact, in this audacious book, becomes a symbol of modern England in decline—chilly, hostile, and unsympathetic to outsiders or the undeserving poor:
A sharp breeze lifted the hems of skirts and rattled the leaves on the immature trees; a spiteful, chill wind that sought out your weakest places, the nape of your neck and your knees, and which denied you the comfort of dreaming, of retreating a little from reality.
Reading Vacancy, my mind kept going back to classics like Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Return of the Native, where we come to know the characters intimately and have to watch in horror as they are brought down by a tragic flaw or a cruel social structure. The book opens with a sudden death: fortyish Barry Fairbrother keels over in front of a restaurant and dies on the night of his nineteenth wedding anniversary, while wife Mary stands over him in horror, and a local couple, Samantha and Miles, rush to help.
It takes a long while for the tragic implications of Barry’s death to become clear. In the meantime, the most practical result of his death is that a “casual vacancy” has arisen on the local council. Howard Mollison is thrilled, because Barry was a proponent of keeping Pagford financially tied to a nearby slumlike council estate with the ironic name of The Fields. Howard’s mission is to separate Pagford from The Fields, and with Barry gone, he thinks he can finally do it. An unpopular female Indian doctor, Parminder Jawanda, is Barry’s ally on the council. Howard and his business partner crony, Maureen, are spitefully pleased to be the first to tell her the news of Barry’s death and are quietly amused at her stunned reaction—but they’re more focused on what they can achieve politically:
Both, as they watched Councillor Jawanda disappear around a corner, were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.
The Casual Vacancy could have been a rather petty comic novel and it does have traces of comedy and grotesqueness. Howard Mollison and his wife Shirley are spiteful and dull and conniving; their daughter-in-law Samantha Mollison loathes being dragged around to her husband, Miles’s, parents’ home and spends the novel in a state of mounting rage at her deadened marriage and narrowing prospects:
Disgust rose in Samantha like vomit. She wanted to seize the overwarm cluttered room and mash it between her hands, until the royal china, and the gas fire, and the gilt-framed pictures of Miles broke into jagged pieces; then, with wizened and painted Maureen trapped and squalling inside the wreckage, she wanted to heave it, like a celestial shot-putter, away into the sunset.
Many of the characters are in a state of repressed rage. In a clever twist, the least powerful characters, the adolescents, use the Internet as a means to separately spill ugly secrets about their own families, targeting the parent they feel the most rage at. The name they use to post with on the town site is The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.
The first to post on the site is Andrew Price, who in another kind of novel would have been the hero. Teenage Andrew hates his father; his parents are locked in a codependent relationship, with his father Simon being the domestic tyrant. The scenes where Simon vents his rage against his family are authentic and terrifying. But Rowling is deft at showing Andrew’s growing disillusionment at his mother as well:
As a child, his parents had appeared to him as starkly black and white, the one bad and frightening, the other good and kind. Yet as he had grown older, he kept coming up hard in his mind against Ruth’s willing blindness, to her constant apologia for his father, to the unshakable allegiance to her false idol.
The novel is partially about Pagford’s children warring against their parents, and that is certainly an enjoyable subject, one we can all relate to. But Rowling is not content to depict middle-class adolescent rebellion. She goes even deeper, exploring a family from the Fields housing estate, whose daughter, Krystal Weedon, goes to school with Andrew and his unpleasant friend “Fats” Wall. Krystal barely has a family at all: a mother, Terri, who’s a chronic heroin addict and former prostitute, a little brother who is learning disabled and neglected. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is when social worker Kay comes to interview Terri and tries to get through to her that her son is in danger of being taken away. Terri is barely there, a wispy wretch of a woman who can scarcely form a coherent thought. Yet Kay, enmeshed in her own personal problems, has this unexpected insight: But not to feel, not to care…Right now, Kay thought, she’s happier than I am.
Rowling’s treatment of class goes deep. In fact, it’s at the heart of the novel. Despite the miseries of the middle-class characters, their lives are not literally on the line. As I progressed through The Casual Vacancy, I had the unsettling feeling that most of the characters were doomed. But by the end, it’s clear that the middle-class characters are essentially safe. It could be argued that Rowling denies some of her characters humanity in her rush to make the point that working-class characters are the true losers in modern English society.
But Rowling’s depiction of working-class life isn’t boring—it’s gripping. And she has done an amazing thing. She’s made the pathetic figure of Terri Weedon human and relatable. When Rowling delves into Terri’s terrible backstory, which unfolds as the matriarch of the family, Nana Cath, is dying, we are shown in flashback that Terri simply never had anyone to stand up for her. And the welfare state, as embodied by the careless and overstretched “care” of the social workers, just isn’t good enough. Krystal, Terri’s daughter, as feisty and strong as she appears externally, has had only one advocate, a man who’s no longer there—Barry Fairbrother. In flashbacks we see that Barry, who grew up in the Fields himself, encouraged Krystal to join the school rowing team, which he coached, and amazingly they won… but Krystal’s moment of glory was brief, and Barry’s death has been devastating for her.
I was deeply affected by The Casual Vacancy, and I didn’t expect to be. There were moments in the book where I choked back tears. The most powerful moments were the swift flashes of insight, lyrically expressed. Was it love when somebody filled a space in your life that yawned inside you, once they had gone? a character asks herself. The internal worlds of the characters are fraught and lonely; each relationship Rowling examines seems frayed or deeply dishonest in a very true-to-life way.
And so the actual vacancy on the parish council doesn’t matter as much in the end. The book seems to be more about the ways in which we can all come together, or connect, but we choose not to. And when we make that choice, or society does, terrible things can happen in the gaps that open up. I never thought that a Rihanna song would come to have such tragic import, but in this remarkable book, it does, played at the two funerals that bookend the novel.
I’ll wave a magic wand and make a prediction about Rowling’s literary career from here on out. Casual Vacancy will slowly come to be regarded as the brave achievement that it is. Rowling will come out with her next book, but it will not go to number one. Her literary novels won’t ever be as beloved or “bestselling” as the Harry Potter books. But Rowling will have serious literary cred. Whether she enjoys it or not is up to her.