J.K. Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction is just that…adult. With all that the word implies. Her newest book The Casual Vacancy is full of heavy subject matter that can be rather difficult to read at times. I did not tear through the roughly 500-page novel with anywhere near the same voracity as I had with her previous works. Though her distinctive writing style is instantly recognizable, there is no trace of the humor and whimsy that characterized the Harry Potter series.
The story centers on the fictional town of Pagford, where the sudden death of one of the Parish Councillors necessitates an emergency election to fill the ‘casual vacancy.’ The election is fraught with drama as the residents of Pagford are divided over the issue of whether or not the town should continue to claim responsibility for a parcel of land known as ‘The Fields’ and the housing projects contained therein.
Because a vast majority of Fields residents are unemployed and on public assistance, many of the good people of Pagford feel a certain amount of resentment towards the ‘freeloading Fielders.’ To add insult to injury, many of the Fielders are also frequent visitors to the Bellchapel Addiction Center, which is basically a methadone clinic. The results of the council election will determine whether or not Pagford will be able to close Bellchapel and rid themselves of The Fields once and for all.
Perhaps not as interesting as a group of teenagers saving the world from the darkest wizard of all time, but overall, still a good read.
The first thing that struck me was Rowling’s choice of Barry as the name for one of her major characters. For a moment I thought, Oh no. Tell me he’s not going to have a ginger best friend named Jon and a know-it-all sidekick called Vermione. But I needn’t have worried. There were no such nods to the HP series, much to the disappointment of many of my fellow Potterheads. One of the locales in the story, Evertree Crescent, did give me a moment’s pause though because it reminded me of Evergreen Terrace. Then I remembered that Evergreen Terrace has nothing to do with Harry Potter at all because it’s actually from The Simpsons, at which point I stopped looking for parallels and just tried to enjoy the story.
It was a tough sell though. Despite the fact that the story starts off with the sudden death of a character, the plot plods slowly along for the first half of the book. That is due, in part, to JKR’s choice of perspective. She opted once again for omniscient, third person narration, which is my preferred form of story telling. However, unlike the HP series, where, with the exception of four chapters: ‘The Riddle House’ (Book 4), ‘The Other Minister’ and ‘Spinner’s End’ (Book 6) and ‘The Dark Lord Ascending’ (Book 7) the reader is limited to Harry’s perspective, whereas in The Casual Vacancy the perspective switches between more than a dozen characters.
This sort of varied perspective is usually something I enjoy in fiction. It is a style that has been perfected by one of my other favorite authors, Christopher Moore. In his books there are very clear delineations between main and supporting characters and he typically limits the perspective to one character per chapter so there’s never any confusion about whose thoughts we’re hearing. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of The Casual Vacancy. JKR’s characters comprise a true ensemble cast where no one story line emerges as more important that any other. She moves so freely in and out of so many characters’ heads, it was sometimes difficult to keep track.
Speaking of characters, I couldn’t find anyone to love in this story. Usually when I love a book, I can’t stop thinking about the characters and I find myself wondering about where they are now and what they’re doing. That didn’t happen even once with this book. Mostly because a vast majority of the characters are selfish, petty and completely unlikeable. Think the Dursley’s times a hundred. With the exception of a small handful of teenage characters, I had a hard time finding anyone to root for in this story. The least reprehensible of the bunch are:
Sukvinder Jawanda – the unattractive, black sheep of a successful Sikh family (the only Sikh family in town) who garners more sympathy from the reader than love or admiration.
Andrew Price – the son of an abusive bully of a father and a timid mother with a martyr complex who does little to protect her children. Again, there’s not much to love about this character, but I didn’t hate him so, in this story, he gets points for that.
Krystal Weedon – perhaps the most redeeming character of them all (apart from the deceased Barry who is painted as the milk of human kindness, which makes me wonder how he was able to survive in a town full of miscreants and still keep his trademark smile); Krystal is the low class, illiterate, foul-mouthed, ill-tempered, sexually adventurous daughter of a junkie prostitute. Though Krystal is painted as the obvious ‘bad girl’ of the bunch, deep down we discover that she is perhaps the most selfless character of the lot, however she is too ignorant and damaged to make healthy decisions.
The other thing that took some getting used to in this book was her choice of language. I had no idea that JKR (Harry Potter’s mom for goodness’ sake!) had such a colorful vocabulary. Bitch curses like a dockside whore! And coming from me, that’s saying something. As frequent readers of this blog know, I can get a wee bit cursey from time to time.
I was not only impressed by the breadth of her curse-word vocabulary, but more so by her creative usage. For instance, take the word fuck. It’s a favorite curse word in America because it can be used as virtually any part of speech. However, I was unaware, until reading The Casual Vacancy that is, that the same could be said for the word cunt. I had never heard never heard the word used as a verb or an adjective before, but apparently across the pond your son can be a cunting little twat (which seems redundant to me) or you could be having a cunting good time. Who knew?
If her intent in using such language was to shock the reader and make people feel uncomfortable, she most definitely succeeded. In fact, this whole book felt like she was trying a little too hard to distance herself from the magical world she created with Harry Potter and comes off as a bit disingenuous. You know that old saying, ‘You gotta dance with the one who brung ya?’ Well, I’m not sure that they use that expression in the UK, but perhaps they should. I’m not saying that because of her past success with the genre that JKR should be limited to children’s literature for the rest of her career, but simply that she needn’t fight so hard against her natural talents and inclinations.
Then again, perhaps such dark and gritty subject matter is a return to her roots. She has said in many interviews that while Pagford is indeed a fictional town, it is not unlike the town in which JKR herself grew up. And let’s not forget that while she was writing the beginning of the Harry Potter series, she was living on public assistance in the British equivalent to a housing project. It makes me wonder how much of this book, which is certainly not totally autobiographical, is at least partially informed by those experiences. Intentional or not, The Casual Vacancy definitely highlights some of the socioeconomic problems and class warfare in modern western society.
In any case, apart from the surprising language, depressing subject matter, repugnant characters and a somewhat random affinity for that Rihanna/Jay Z song ‘Umbrella…ella…ella…’ (the lyrics of which are quoted several times throughout the book), JKR is still a masterful storyteller. Though the book has a slow start, it races to the finish with a series of red herrings that keep the reader guessing.
If the Harry Potter series was JKR’s wonderous childhood then perhaps we can look on The Casual Vacancy as her rebellious teenage years and hope that eventually she can get back to writing magical stories full of levity and lovable characters that leave you wanting more. Either that or she could simply give all her HP fans what they really want and write a story about how Dumbledore, Dobby and Fred are actually alive and well and living in Bermuda.