JK Rowling will always hold a special place in the hearts of millions of people for her depiction of the wizarding world and its wonderful characters in seven Harry Potter books, and multiple spin-offs. She has a familiar style that embraces her readers in a feeling of security and safety; you know what you’re getting with a book written by Rowling. So imagine the ripples of excitement triggered by the release of Rowling’s first novel since the Harry Potter series, back in 2012. Her loyal fans, now mostly adults, couldn’t wait to get their hands on her latest offering, The Casual Vacancy, probably assuming that it was going to reflect their favourite series, although perhaps with a little less magic. Next, imagine the horror as fans flocked to purchase this novel, and after reading the first few pages discovered that it was full of expletives, blasphemy, sex and despicable characters. I must admit that I was cautious, giving the novel a wide berth in an attempt to preserve the sacred opinion I held of Rowling. I did attempt to watch the televised BBC/HBO adaptation, but didn’t pursue it after finding it hard to get into (although looking back, this was probably largely down to a deep-seated discomfort I felt at being ‘disloyal’ to my favourite wizarding friends).
After joining an audio book service late last year, and having built up a couple of credits while listening to a particularly lengthy tome, I browsed the pages of audio books, eagerly searching for a hidden gem with a familiar narrator (believe me, the voice is everything where audio books are concerned). Low and behold, I stumbled across The Casual Vacancy once again, and had a sudden desire to give it another chance. And this time my initial opinion of the novel was unceremoniously revealed to be prejudiced and small-minded. I now love this novel and everything it stands for.
Set in the fictional suburban town of Pagford, a small English haven nestled in the West Country, The Casual Vacancy begins with a shocking event – the sudden death of beloved Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. This plunges the reader into the heart of Pagford and its thorny local politics, as residents from across the social spectrum battle it out, sometimes viciously, to take Barry’s seat on the council. What ensues is a richly complex examination of small-town culture, with Rowling deconstructing the community’s view of its idyllic setting from the inside out, getting right to the heart of some of the deepest social issues present in modern Britain. Rowling’s comfortable yet sharply perceptive style creates a novel that is readable and powerful; that awakens the reader to an understanding of what may be going on behind the scenes in their own community. The setting may be local, but the issues raised are certainly familiar to readers across society, and across the nation.
Rowling’s writing is vivid and alive; within a few chapters Pagford is as real as any small English town, its bustling community masking underlying tension that runs much deeper than local political skirmishes. The tragedy of Barry Fairbrother’s death and the matter of electing a new council member to his seat (the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title) unearth a cesspit of secrets, transgressions and sins beneath the placid surface of Pagford. Domestic abuse, addiction, poverty, mental health issues, self-harm, family breakdown, underage sex – all of these raw, real issues are tackled by Rowling in her conversant style. She is unafraid to paint an honest picture of life in communities like Pagford, all across the UK – there is no magic, friendship and unbreakable loyalty to act as a buffer between the reader and the stark realities of life in this novel. Understandably, some took offence at this – how dare Rowling use foul language and sexually explicit content? She must remain as pure and untouchable as her adored wizards and witches – isn’t that all she’s good for? There is a sense that Rowling has been able to show another side to her writing; one where she opens the floor to discussion, where no issue is too difficult. And it is only right that Rowling would want to break away from her own writing tradition; it proves that she is a true author, who uses her unique voice and literary talent to comment on the good and evil present in the everyday world, without the buffer of magic disguising her message. Her Harry Potter audience has grown up now, and this is a novel for their adulthood.
Rowling has a talent for writing character and emotion without using too many words, too much hyperbole. The Casual Vacancy is full of people you might meet in the local shop or doctors surgery; people who are extraordinary in their familiarity. Her characters are all flawed, but they are real and honest, and because of this they are sympathetic. Some are tragic, some you grow to love, and some you inherently hate, but isn’t that what human relationships and interactions are about? This firm character base allows Rowling to explore the weighty issues faced by her fictional community. Her depiction of mental health issues like OCD, for example, is thoughtful and thought-provoking. She portrays a character struggling with the condition and draws attention to symptoms of OCD, experienced by some, that people might not be aware of – unwanted and intrusive thoughts and visions, overwhelming fears of committing an abhorrent act or crime. She portrays the impact that such mental health conditions have on the loved ones of the person suffering, sensitively considering the feelings of frustration and concern that form part of the daily internal struggle of all those involved. Rowling is also unafraid to tackle issues of race. One of the central families in the novel, the Jawandas, represents the difficulties faced by individuals of an ethnic minority in a small, traditionally British community. Although Parminder Jawanda and her family are British-born and hold important roles within Pagford (Parminder is a GP and Parish Councillor, her husband, Vikram, is a heart surgeon who has saved the lives of Pagford residents) they are still kept at a distance, treated with suspicion and resentment when the tensions start to bubble over. Parminder’s daughter, Sukhvinder, is relentlessly bullied at school; called sickeningly offensive names and subject to online harrassment. But the Jawandas are not the only characters ostracised by their peers; the residents of The Fields, the local council estate, are viewed as vermin, ridiculed and reviled by the Pagford community. Krystal Weedon, one of the most complex and beautifully written characters in the novel, struggles to be accepted by her classmates because of her poverty-stricken background and heroin-addicted mother. There is a poignancy with which Krystal rails against society with her fragile confidence, desperate to feel at home in a place where she is not welcome because of her family’s perceived misdemeanours.
Overseeing it all is archangel Barry Fairbrother, whose beloved persona ironically becomes a vehicle of slander, hatred and vicious online bullying when an anonymous hacker takes over the council website. He is used as a mouthpiece through which the community voices their suspicions and accusations, reveals the darkest secrets of their neighbours, and pits families against families, young against old, children against parents. By the end of the novel, no character feels secure in their comfortable position any longer; the community has been shaken up, roles have been reversed and tragedy has struck, and Pagford will never be the same again.
The Casual Vacancy is a clever, insightful novel, unafraid to display the grittier aspects of life in all its glory. Rowling is a masterful storyteller whose remarkable talent for writing characters has allowed her to create yet another bestseller; yet there is an edge, a darkness, a brutality to this novel that leaves the reader stunned and heartbroken, particularly as the final chapter draws to a close. As a side note, the audio book version of The Casual Vacancy is brilliantly produced, with actor Tom Hollander narrating this tale of hardship, tragedy and, above all, humanity.