Reviewed by Sheheryar Sheikh
The Harry Potter series has sold over 450 million books, and has been translated into 73 languages. Upon learning that J.K. Rowling would soon come out with a novel for adults, I was eagerly waiting to see what she could come up with after taking a sharp turn away from material that had brought her such astounding success. Having now read The Casual Vacancy cover to cover in three sittings, I am convinced that this is the book I was waiting for her to write.
The entire narrative of The Casual Vacancy takes place within two adjacent rural towns in England: Pagford and Yarvil. Of these, the more residential Pagford is a haven that was once pristine and untainted by council housing (read poor people’s accommodations), but has since been infiltrated by an estate where families on welfare dwell.
At the beginning of the novel, Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Pagford Parish Council, suffering from a two-day headache, dies suddenly of an aneurism. This leaves open his seat on the council, and tears into the social fabric of the town. Barry was perhaps the only universally liked character in both Pagford and Yarvil. A link between families and between the haves and have-nots in the two towns, he leaves behind not just his widow Mary and their four children, but also those that counted him as a role model, best friend, coach, or even the secret love of their lives. All these bonds come untethered with Barry’s death.
Three people decide to stand for election as Barry’s successor on the Pagford Parish Council. The power of the council extends to zoning the town’s territories, and the major decision of whether or not to keep the council estates within Pagford will come up for voting soon. Miles Mollison wants to be elected to add power to his father Howard Mollison’s idea of reworking the zones so as to kick out the council estates from Pagford into Yarvil. This would mean that Yarvil, not Pagford, will bear the brunt of generating the income that goes to support families on welfare in the council estates.
But the deceased Barry was opposed to rezoning, and the local high school principal Colin Wall wants to be voted in so he can fulfil Barry’s vision. The last candidate, Simon Price, wants to win the election because he thinks he can fill his pockets with bribes once he is on the council. All candidates are Pagford people who haven’t tasted poverty themselves, whereas Barry was born in the council estates and raised himself out of that den of hopelessness to make a future for himself and to give hope to those still stuck there.
While the election hovers in the background like a reverberating piano note, there is much more to the novel than just these principal candidates and the eventual outcome of the vote. Rowling ties together the families of these towns into a claustrophobic web. There is hardly any degree of separation between the characters that are linked in multiple ways and display complex loyalties. For instance, Barry’s main opponent Howard’s doctor is Parminder, who counted Barry as her best friend. Also, everyone drops by Howard’s deli-café in town, even though they may be at loggerheads on the council estates issue. Simon’s son, Andrew, even begins working at the café, despite Simon and Howard facing off in the election.
The tourniquet-like pressure on the narrative keeps building as the elections come closer, reaching several crescendos before the last major one. Children, in fits of rage, put up notices on the council’s website against their parents — anonymous notes that shout out their parents’ darkest secrets. And the women form their own layers of diplomatic negotiations, with tensions escalating to the likeness of a shrill shriek at some dinner parties.
The couples have tussles for power and intimacy. There are some secret affairs that fuel small-town gossip, as in real life. But the most interesting parts of Rowling’s commentary on adults are her dissections of marriages. Consider this one paragraph that exemplifies her skill with the pen:
“None of the delight frothing and fizzing inside Shirley had been apparent while Howard had been in the room. They had merely exchanged the comments proper to sudden death before he had taken himself off to the shower. Naturally Shirley had known, as they slid stock words and phrases back and forth between them like beads on an abacus, that Howard must be as brimful of ecstasy as she was; but to express these feelings out loud, when the news of the death was still fresh in the air, would have been tantamount to dancing naked and shrieking obscenities, and Howard and Shirley were clothed, always, in an invisible layer of decorum that they never laid aside.”
Rowling writes most of the adults well, but the book’s best segments are when she is describing what the three principal teenagers are going through. Surely seven Harry Potter books play into her heightened capacity for understanding the teenage years and portraying them well. In this for-adults novel though, the psyches of her characters are darker, more realistic, and not prone to supernatural escapes from their dangerous explorations.
When we first meet one of the principle teenagers, the candidate Simon’s son, this is what we learn about him: “That’s wise, thought Andrew, with furious contempt; that’s profound. So it was Barry Fairbrother’s own fault his brain had burst open. You self-satisfied f***er, Andrew told his father, loudly, inside his own head.” That’s how rebellious teens behave when they want to dissemble. But Rowling’s got their number.
The situations that Krystal, a council estate teenager, is exposed to are harrowing, and cannot come up in any children’s book. Raised by a neglectful drug-addict mother, Krystal is the one thing keeping both her mother and her baby brother out of foster care or prison. With a filthy mouth and promiscuous habits, she becomes a link between the bleakness of the council estates and the privileged class that calls Pagford home.
Krystal was among those who counted on Barry as her mentor. He was her rowing team’s coach, and now that he is dead, her hope — and hope for her — is disappearing fast.
There has been some criticism of the pessimism in the novel. In her quest to depart from writing for children, Rowling may just have written the bleakest possible work she could. Despite its fleeting moments of pure delight for characters that do strike a sympathetic chord, there is little to cheer about in this novel. The darkness is what resounds. Another imperfection is the narrator’s moralising tone. It may read well enough for fans of her previous fiction, but it can appear condescending in a literary novel for adults.
Overall, the gripping narrative, with its several high points, including beautiful use of language, is a worthy read. The Casual Vacancy should figure among the best books of the year. J.K. Rowling, the writer for grown-ups, has arrived.
The reviewer teaches communication, rhetoric and literature at Lums, BNU and LSE
The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown and Company, UK