Review – The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

The Casual Vacancy book cover

The Casual Vacancy book coverThere’s been a lot of hype about J.K. Rowling’s new book, with embargoes placed on early reviews and very little information about the story revealed before the release date.  It almost felt like another Harry Potter book coming out, but this book has long been promised to be nothing like a trip back to Hogwarts.  I’m going to admit my bias upfront and say that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting a new book from Jo.  I’ve even been excited to read her writing in such a drastically different genre from before.  But every article and review I’ve seen about the book seems eager to attack her for taking on something new, something so different.  So many people have been focusing on the swearing and the sex as if they’ve never read any books with swearing and sex in it before.  Because the book comes from Rowling, a woman who represents many a person’s childhood, people are responding to the mature themes like they just traveled forward through time from the Victorian era.  To be honest, every time I heard a quote from the book that exemplifies just how adult it is–and those lines have been bandied about the internet quite a bit–I’ve actually been filled with glee to see something so different from the sterilized world of Potter (though it’s not really sterilized, considering the amount of violence and deaths that occur right in front of Harry’s eyes, but Americans, at least, have always been pretty blasé about violence while sex turns even the most bloodthirsty of people into Helen Lovejoy screaming, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!”).  Whether it was intentional, to prove that she can do something other than children’s books, or just that without a juvenile age restriction she is now free to express herself fully in all her profanity-laced glory, it takes guts to shake off an identity that has clung to her for fifteen years.  It reminds me of when Daniel Radcliffe, our dear Harry himself, first broke free from the image of the young, innocent hero to star in Equus.  I like to see people trying something new and different, so, despite seeing mixed reviews, I jumped right in, prepared for anything.

The book opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the local council in the small English town of Pagford.  His death leaves a vacancy on the council, thus Pagford holds an election to fill his seat.  The election stirs up long-held resentments and brings the bickering over a controversial low-income housing area and local drug rehabilitation clinic to a head.  The Fields, as the slum area is called, has long split the people of Pagford over the issue of whether it should stay within Pagford’s jurisdiction or to rezone and hand it over to the nearby city of Yarvil.  Barry Fairbrother was born in the Fields and thought that letting it remain as part of Pagford gave the children growing up there a better chance at life, like he had, because they would have access to Pagford’s schools and resources.  This overarching plot of the election and the fate of the Fields is twisted up in the personal stories of over a dozen characters. It’s not a clean, neat story and it does not have a happy ending.  It shows reality at its harshest and Rowling doesn’t hold back.  If this were a Harry Potter fan fiction it would have a trigger warning list a mile long: There’s drug use, underage sex, rape, pedophilia, suicide, racism, and that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.  The plot itself sometimes feels a bit thin but that’s because it’s really about the characters.  This book studies the intersection of the lives of everyone in this town and how one man can have an impact on everyone.  Each character represents a subplot and all the threads of their lives twist and tangle together.  It can be hard to keep track of who is who at first, and with such a large cast of characters you never feel like you get to know any one of them particularly well, but the town itself is a character, made up of all these contradictory and conflicting people, and it’s the town that we get to know best.

However, even though the characters are the heart of the story, in some ways they can feel like caricatures.  People like Howard Mollison, the town’s equivalent of a mayor who is greedy, arrogant and wants to do away with the Fields, or Krystal Weedon, the bad girl raised in the Fields who sleeps around and swears viciously, seem like stereotypes.  But all of these characters have hidden sides.  All of them show the world one face, one aspect of themselves, only to be turned over like a stone to reveal another facet of their personality.  Krystal Weedon especially creates a complex picture.  She is shown to be a mix of many different traits–hateful of her drug-abusing mother, loving of her baby brother, apathetic about school but proud of her achievements in rowing, and cruel to fellow students with little provocation but willing to help when needed, like when she saved a fellow classmate’s life when they were kids.  Most of the town sees her as the perfect example of how bad the Fields is while Barry felt a kinship with her.  He thought that her story could actually prove the good that having the Fields as part of Pagford had done and how it had helped her like it had once helped him.

With the giant cast of characters and the stark look at social issues, you can see why Rowling’s publisher compared the book to Dickens.  The characters are all flawed and many don’t tend to incite sympathy at first, but the journey of their lives is certainly fascinating, a bit like following the gossip that many a woman in Pagford trades like currency.  In fact, the characters remind me a bit of medieval morality plays.  It’s like they represent different vices: pride, wrath, lust, etc.  But there is no Everyman to navigate his way through all of the sins around him to discover the right path–Barry Fairbrother is the closest to that archetype and he dies in the first few pages.  The vices are then left to figure out morality for themselves, and they don’t do that well for the most part.

JK Rowling holding her bookAmongst the characters bickering, gossiping, and shagging, there is a message.  This book is trying to say something, something that the J.K. Rowling living off of welfare would have been ignored for but that the J.K. Rowling with millions of adoring fans and a massive entertainment empire at her disposal might be able to have heard.  Rowling said it herself that she likes to explore the themes of morality and mortality and this book definitely delves into those.  It is morality that is the core of this novel, it is the morality of average citizens, real people with their own flaws and personal problems, taking responsibility not only for themselves but for the world beyond their own lives, acknowledging the right of other people to their needs.  As the intersecting lives of the numerous characters all end up touching each other despite how different or how distant they are, the book shows that we are not alone in this world, that some people need help and society is responsible for helping.  Responsibility is a major theme throughout, focusing especially on the responsibility society has to take care of those who start off on the lower end of the playing field and to give them an equal chance at being able to excel like anyone else.

I liked this book.  It’s not a perfect book, not by far, and it’s certainly not for everybody, but I liked it.  It can feel long and overwrought with so many characters and a plot that won’t capture everyone’s interest, but I found the gossiping and the small town politics fascinating.  The social issues that it deals with sometimes feel a little ham-fisted but I’m glad they were dealt with and I can’t think of how she could have done it differently.  I also enjoyed the bits of humor.  This book can be relentlessly depressing, but you can still see the same sense of humor Rowling’s always had pop up throughout.  I also enjoyed getting to know the many different characters, from Fats Wall, a teenager trying to find “authenticity” and who probably has a dog-eared copy of Catcher in the Rye under his pillow, to Samantha Mollison, a mother who has lost the passion in her marriage and finds solace in fantasizing about an American boy band member (I could just imagine her getting a tumblr…).  All in all, the book left me pondering it and the issues it forces into the light long after I finished.  It’s definitely a story that stays with you and I think that’s the ultimate test of a good book.