J.K. Rowling's new book explores dark territory
A lot of people are going to hate The Casual Vacancy. J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults is bleak, dry, and decidedly without magic. But it’s also powerful, and to anyone with a stomach for sordidness, it has the potential to be a rewarding read.
The Casual Vacancy tells the story of Pagford — a small, well-to-do British town that has been saddled with an impoverished housing development called the Fields for 60 years. Many Pagford residents would like nothing more than to hand the Fields over to the neighboring city of Yarvil, and when parish councilor and Fields advocate Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving council members with the titular “casual vacancy,” they see their chance. A decades-old game of tug-of-war comes to a head, with 16-year-old Fields resident Krystal Weedon as the rope.
Rowling’s prose is workman-like. She has always over-relied on adjectives and adverbs, and her attempts at figurative language are generally awkward. For example, the aneurysm that kills Fairbrother “sliced through his brain like a demolition ball,” which isn’t very evocative and doesn’t make much sense — do demolition balls really slice? But her attention to detail and her intricate characters make up for that.
Rowling’s characters, be they heroes or villains, shine. They are detailed and recognizable: Narrow-minded, doting housewife Shirley Mollison regularly checks her “favorite medical website” to diagnose her neighbors. Apathetic, uptight Gavin Hughes, one of Fairbrother’s pallbearers, can’t stand that the wicker coffin puts him so close to the dead body. Council candidate Miles Mollison, who witnessed Fairbrother’s death, just wants people to recognize that he’s an important player, too.
But Weedon, with her multiple piercings and exposed thong, is the real thematic heart of the book. Weedon is tough, vulnerable, and entirely alone in the world. She curses like a sailor and outwardly scoffs at society, but she secretly dreams that her older half-sister Anne-Marie, whom she’s never met, will be her friend. She carries her little brother Robbie’s picture in a red, plastic heart keychain in her pocket. She stows her rowing medal — one of the few awards she’s ever gotten from Pagford — in the only safe, treasured place she has: a plastic jewelry box in her otherwise barren room. Weedon is a girl half-in and half-out of her community; she’s not wanted and knows it, but she can’t help but want to be part of it anyway.
The places where the book suffers are those where Rowling has tried the hardest to get away from her reputation as the author of the Harry Potter series. There’s a lot of sex and a lot of swearing, and while those aren’t bad in and of themselves, the book sometimes reads like South Park. That doesn’t seem to be what Rowling was going for.
But when she gets it right, Rowling’s new adult material injects a level of realism that wasn’t possible in Harry Potter. For example, social worker Kay Bawden recalls the many horrors she’s seen during her time working for Child Protective Services: “... and once (she dreamed of it, still), a child who had been locked in a cupboard for five days by his psychotic stepfather. That one had made the national news.” That’s a pretty bold step away from Harry Potter — in a dark direction.
Although Rowling’s book is bleak, there’s humor for those who are willing to look for it. Rowling has always been better at building worlds and observing people than she has been at constructing plots; she’s in her wheelhouse here, writing about a huge cast of sharply observed characters in a well-defined world. Instead of choosing one point of view, she narrates her story in a broad, omniscient voice, and it suits her — letting her play all her characters’ thoughts off each other and explore the little ironies, tragedies, and pettinesses of her cast. It is difficult not to laugh when sex-starved housewife Mollison breathes a sigh of relief when she discovers that, although she and her 14-year-old daughter both have crushes on members of an American boy band, they’re at least on different members. Never let it be said that Rowling doesn’t know the power of a good detail.
Mostly, though, The Casual Vacancy is a depressing book. The characters are, by and large, both unhappy and unlikeable. Their spots of hope are small and fragile; they are preoccupied with themselves and with their own troubles. The majority of what was good in their lives seems to have come from Fairbrother, who, as it gradually becomes clear, was the best person in Pagford. Rowling’s details work the other way as well, highlighting tragedies large and small in her characters’ lives, making gut-wrenching scenes of moments that otherwise might have been merely sad.
But there is a purpose to Rowling’s bleakness, and a strategy behind the unlikeability of her characters. Rowling’s book has one central theme that she hammers home: the desire of those comfortable with their lives to turn their backs on those who are afflicted. The heroes of the book — and there are very few of them — are the people who eventually manage to look away from their own lives and troubles and see value in the people around them. Meanwhile, the real villains of the story are not the people trying to oust the Fields; they are the ones who see what’s happening, and think, “I just can’t be bothered with local politics.”
The Casual Vacancy is a difficult book. It’s long, it’s sad, and there are precious few likeable characters. It’s a tragedy. But if you like tragedies, if your sense of humor runs to the dry, and if you are, like Rowling, constantly amazed by people’s willingness to avert their eyes — read it.