Review - The Casual Vacancy

I have to respect any artist who undertakes a massive change in direction: Radiohead with Kid A, Martin Scorsese every decade or so, Steven Soderbergh with literally every movie he makes, etc. With a few exceptions, these moves are almost intrinsically courageous. It’s difficult to move out of your comfort zone, especially when you’ve carved out such a niche there (though, now that I think of it, I’m starting to wonder if Soderbergh even has a comfort zone). J.K. Rowling recently made such a move with the publication of her eighth novel, The Casual Vacancy, which is her first non-Harry Potter­ related work to date.

In April I mentioned how I finally read the Potter novels in full last summer, in the process seeing how much Rowling developed as a writer. Between The Philosopher’s Stone and The Deathly Hallows, she gradually worked in a greater sense of maturity with each passing book, making the series one you would have to grow up with—or at least be fully grown—to truly appreciate. So by the time I finished the epilogue of Hallows I was more than ready to see where Rowling went next and whether she maintained the maturity she spent a decade building toward. I was not let down.

The Casual Vacancy is a blunt, candid and complicated work, having more in common with the Red Riding trilogy of crime films and the popular TV series Skins than the world of witches, wizards and magic that nearly every child in the Western world has some level of familiarity with. It’s about feuds both petty and grand, how grudges form and linger and might never be resolved, and how people are too complex for any snap judgment to truly summarize them. Its language is harsh, the level of bigotry and ignorance present in some of its characters sometimes boggling, and not a page went by that I didn’t question whether this book was by the same person who penned The Philosopher’s Stone a decade and a half ago. But while superficially completely alien to anything Rowling has written before, it in fact draws heavily on the themes of classism, racism and poverty that were apparent both in the foreground and background of the seven Harry Potter books.

Pagford, in the West Country of England, is basically the most stereotypical British burg you can think of, like Sandford in Hot Fuzz. And like Sandford, its uglier aspects are hidden, though these are certainly not as extreme as the routine killings that took place in Edgar Wright’s buddy cop parody. For decades, prominent members of the Pagford Parish Council have been trying to get boundaries redrawn so the village will no longer be associated with the nearby crime- and poverty-stricken low income estate known as the Fields. More recently, they’ve also been trying to evict a Fields-situated addiction clinic from the Pagford-owned premises, citing a lack of success.

The most vocal opponent of these measures is Barry Fairbrother, a 44-year-old banker, middle school rowing team coach and councillor born and raised in the Fields, and almost by nature of his birth the long term opponent of Howard Mollison, the morbidly obese delicatessen owner and Chair of the Council. Unfortunately for proponents of the Fields and fortunately for Mollison and his cronies, Barry dies suddenly of a brain aneurysm in the opening chapter, sparking massive fallout that affects nearly everyone in Pagford and its troubled neighbouring estate.

Like a modern, more compact and notably less violent version of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Casual Vacancy has no single protagonist. Without flipping through the book again, I can think of at least fifteen. Yet in spite of this staggering number and the intricate relationships tying them all together Rowling manages to balance them all remarkably well. Some of the most memorable are Krystal Weedon, a promiscuous and occasionally violent resident from the Fields who acts as the sole caregiver for her baby brother Robbie while their mother is in and out of heroin addicted stupor; Stuart “Fats” Wall, Krystal’s classmate and the son of their middle school’s deputy headmaster and guidance counsellor, and who antagonizes friend and foe alike out of an almost nihilistic devotion to the notion of authenticity; Dr. Parminder Jawanda, the late Barry Fairbrother’s reserved fellow council member and close friend who is the subject of suspicion and derision by the town’s old guard for her Indian heritage and Sikh beliefs, and who is shockingly harsh toward her quiet—and unbeknownst to Parminder, bullied—daughter Sukhvinder.

I said that the book deals with the complexity of human character, and Rowling succeeds gracefully on this note. The Casual Vacancy looks at people through neither an idealistic nor a cynical lens, but a human one. The majority of Pagford’s citizens possess a virtue for every flaw, though not nearly as mechanically as I just described. While one facet of a character might be worthy of praise, another is a source of endless frustration. For example, I found myself rooting for Parminder whenever she stood up to the town’s old guard but nearly every interaction with her daughter made me want to shake her by the shoulders and shout some sense into her. That being said, a few characters are painted in broad strokes: Sukhvinder, with the exception of one notable transgression, is basically blameless and in a way the novel’s heroine; on the flip side, Simon Price, an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive father and husband who runs for Barry’s empty seat would likely make the top percentile of the Psychopathy Checklist scale. And yet they don’t feel out of place. In my life, I’ve met a few people who are pretty much angels incarnate. I’ve also known some pretty irredeemable bastards. It’s real enough.

That word, real, is key to understanding what makes The Casual Vacancy work as well as the Harry Potter novels. While the former is a gritty depiction of rural English life and the latter a series of kid- and teen-oriented fantasy novels, both are successful in portraying the highs and lows of their respective worlds. While the Potter novels are not nearly as bleak as Vacancy can be at times (well, excepting most of The Deathly Hallows), Rowling was hinting at the blood and class centric bigotry rampant in the wizarding world as early as the first book. And, like The Casual Vacancy, the Harry Potter books contain characters pure (Dobby), deeply flawed (Draco Malfoy) and downright monstrous (Voldemort). There are more similarities between Rowling’s older and current work than there might seem at first glance.

On a more mechanical note, Rowling’s dialogue is as natural and enjoyable as ever, and though the prose in the early Potter books was admittedly florid—though not guiltily so, seeing as they were meant for children—it’s clear how far she’s come in that regard. As a writer, she possesses a firm sense of clarity and pacing, thus making The Casual Vacancy, like the Harry Potter books before it, constantly engaging.

So give The Casual Vacancy a chance. At 503 pages, it’s the shortest book J.K. Rowling has written since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban but like the longer installments in the Potter books almost impossible to put down once you get into the groove of it. It’s been advertised as her first book for adults, and rightly so: for the love of God, do not lend this to your HP-loving young ones. But it’s an endlessly fascinating novel and one I can easily see myself picking through a gain at a later date. If you can forgive the following analogy, Rowling has managed to shift gears without forgetting the clutch, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next book she takes further in this direction.

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