Contains spoilers. Is also excessively long.
Any artist’s work will be judged in light of their previous work, and this has never been more true than with J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy. As everyone knows, Rowling is famous for the worldwide hit Harry Potter books which combined have sold over 450 million copies – the best selling book series in history. The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, and Rowling has retreated from public attention since, as can be discerned from her quiet Twitter account. But in September this year The Casual Vacancy became Rowling’s first published non-Potter book, open to scrutiny from the world. Cue millions of people expecting Harry Potter 2, despite Rowling making clear from the outset that The Casual Vacancy is a far different, more adult book. I began the book with the expectation that I would enjoy it, but that it’d be nothing special.
The book is set in the modern day, evident from references to austerity and other features of modern politics, as well as including Facebook and online forums featuring heavily in the plot. The lives of the residents of the town Pagford are followed, with particular focus giving to an election to fill the seat of Barry Fairbrother, who recently died of an aneurysm. The council is split over a run-down estate called The Fields; half wants it to be reassigned to nearby city Yarvil, the other preferring it to remain part of Pagford. This is where the characters can be loosely divided between progressives and conservatives, Rowling I would imagine placing herself on the side of the former. Despite her public support for the Labour Party, Rowling does well to avoid her biases slipping through into the politics of the story.
The Casual Vacancy is, ultimately, a story driven by characters, and so the simplest way to review the book is to review each character individually. I’ll start with the Mollison family, the most powerful clan in Pagford. Howard is the ‘First Citizen’ of Pagford – the equivalent of mayor – and involved in every going on in the village. He prides himself on being able to name every inhabitant, and possesses a smug knowledge of local history. He’s an insufferable character with a likeable personality, making for an odd mesh of traits. Despite his despicable attitude to poverty in the Fields (basically: “I worked hard for my wealth so why can’t they?”) he is not a malicious character and I am unsure of my opinion of him; I like him more than I know I should. If he was someone in my life I expect I would find his hunger for power unsettling. Perhaps I am never invested enough in the Fields debate to feel strongly enough about his actions? When he suffers a heart attack I neither feel pity nor retribution, also indicating the limited impact he had upon me.
Howard’s wife Shirley is worse: she is utterly devoted to him and ignores his flaws, rapt with jealousy over Maureen’s involvement in his life, wishing she could work with him at the butcher’s instead. She enjoys the defamatory posts about the other residents which end up on the council’s forum that she administrates with great pride, only removing them when pressured to. She is her husband with charm subtracted – to such an extent that she is among my most hated characters. Her psychotic nature is revealed when she plans to kill Howard after discovering his affair with Maureen. Her downfall feels more just than Howard’s; her pride and blind loyalty fatal flaws. I do not believe she would have killed Howard, but the fact her knee-jerk reaction is to do so says enough about her character. Not entirely convinced this is a realistic reaction; the book does descend into mellodrama towards the end, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism.
The Mollisons’ son Miles is less belligerent in his beliefs than his parents. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of character, other than what we see through Samantha: his main traits appear to be ‘boring’ and ‘turning into Howard’. Miles is a great example of how children can unknowingly develop into their parents. Despite playing a pivotal role in the election, going on to win the seat, he never gets a great deal of development and acts largely as a pawn in Howard’s schemes. That said, he does himself agree with his parents’ position on the fields and I can envision him one day taking his father’s place as Pagford’s chief authority – perhaps sooner rather than later. Miles felt realistic to me.
I seem to have had an opposite opinion of Miles’ wife Samantha than most people. Going by reviews I’ve read, a lot of people disliked Samantha to begin but softened their view towards her as the character developed. I, on the other hand, felt mildly affinity towards her, understanding how trapped and frustrated she must feel by her family. As the story went on she began acting more and more unacceptably, becoming ruder in Miles’ presence, developing an unhealthy obsession with a pop start her daughter’s a fan of, and eventually intentionally kissing 16 year old Andrew at a party. Samantha is the definition of an unfulfilled life, yet tragic as she is, summons little sympathy from within me. She merely comes across as pathetic. I may be too young to understand her; with all my dreams and ambitions I can’t appreciate how it would be to be trapped in such a way. However she does start to move in a positive direction by the novel’s end, deciding to enter into the council and planning to oppose her family’s plans for Pagford, turning her feelings of despair into something constructive.
Howard and Shirley’s other child, Patricia, only appears briefly towards the end of the book, having moved away from Pagford. It’s no coincidence that she is my favourite member of the family. She sees their small-minded obsession with village affairs and all their prejudices, such as their inability to accept her homosexuality, for what it is. She is a character who, unhappy with her life, managed to escape Pagford and do something about it. Unlike Samantha, for instance.
The Jawanda family, Sikhs from India who emigrated to the town, are the Mollison’s main adversaries – at least, Parminder is. Parminder is a councillor and local GP, arguing for maintaining the Bellchapel addiction clinic and keeping The Fields part of Pagford. The subtle racism she receives, on one level as simply an ‘outsider’ to the village, and on another because of her ethnicity, is shocking yet very believable, and I’m glad it’s something Rowling has explored. Parminder is a character I initially rooted for, believing her to care for the people of The Fields and their needs. She never loses this allegiance with the worse-off, but her flaws gradually rise to the surface until she is unable to continue the fight and, after losing her temper with Howard during a meeting and disclosing confidential medical information, resigns, thus granting victory to the Mollisons. This also has the effect of creating a second casual vacancy, ensuring the book both begins and ends with one. The dismissive way she treats her daughter Sukhvinder, ignoring her problems, does not reflect well on her. Yet, once again, I believe Parminder to be a realistic character but very flawed – like every resident of Pagford.
Parminder’s husband Vikram is expanded little in the story. His sardonic attitude to the village is interesting to follow, though he prefers to stay out of its affairs. He appears as bored with his marriage to Parminder as she is, and although they are friends, there is no love between them. It is revealed that they had an arranged marriage so this is not surprising. Vikram is fancied by virtually every women in the village, which resulted in what I found one of the more shocking aspects of the book. In Samantha’s self-pity and overactive fantasies, she imagines the joy of being ‘forced’ to marry someone like Vikram. This disregard of the social consequences of arranged marriage is another example of how sheltered Pagford is. I’m not sure if Rowling intended this trail-of-thought to be so odious; I can’t imagine her taking arranged marriages anyway other than seriously.
Their daughter Sukhvinder is one of the more interesting characters in the story, and one of the few whom I actually like. She has her flaws – low self esteem, self harming – but seems a good person nonetheless. We her pain as she experiences bullying at school. The act of cutting herself is described in graphic detail, which I think the queasier reader would struggle to get through, but it’s necessary to explain her suffering. It feels wrong to call this my ‘favourite’ moment in the book, but it’s certainly among the most effective. Sukhvinder develops after gaining Gaia as a friend, who looks out for her and helps raise her confidence. I think Rowling was showing in Sukhvinder the effects emotional neglect from parents can create, in addition to bullying. She feels very realistic to me, and the only time this is broken is when she hacks into the council forum as The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, which isn’t something I believe Sukhvinder would do.
Moving on to the Wall family: Tessa and Colin wall are an interesting couple. On the outside they’re the ‘perfect’ parents; Colin’s deputy headteacher and Tessa’s the guidance counsellor at the same school. However in reality they’re a couple, who live a strained life due to Colin’s OCD which causes him to suffer from severe anxiety. They are both rare characters who I feel no disgust towards. Deeply flawed, yes – particularly Colin – but decent people. I never quite understood what the whole thing about Colin’s paedophilia was about; some analyses have said his secret is that he is one, but that’s not how I took it. I took it to be part of his uncontrollable anxiety, like that he was responsible for Barry’s death: Colin feared he was a paedophile, but in reality was not. A very interesting concept. There are layers and layers to the characters Rowling has created. To me, they are real people who live on after the book ends.
Colin and Tessa have an adopted son called Stuart, referred to by his peers at ‘Fats’. Fats is an interesting character in pursuit of ‘authenticity’ – to lead a life of truth, to be true to himself and the world. This translates as a licence to do what he pleases without consideration of the consequences, of which there are many. As with many characters I hesitantly liked Fats when he was first introduced, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting an intelligent teenager, but my respect soon dropped as his bullying of Sukhvinder become apparent and his general disregard of people’s feelings. I couldn’t comment on whether he is a realistic teenager considering nobody knows what goes on in a teenager’s mind, not even ourselves, but I’ve certainly never met anyone like him. After the catastrophic events of Robbie Weedon’s death which Fats is indirectly responsible for, he does appear to be changing to a more realistic philosophy. Following several different temporary life ideas is definitely a trait common among teenagers.
The Prices. Simon Price is perhaps both the most ‘pantomime’ comic character in the book and the most grittily unnerving. He abuses his family either verbally or physically in several uncomfortable moments throughout the book. While his reactions and temper are completely over the top, I have no doubt that people exist just like Simon. Ruth is almost as irritating in that she simply takes it and always defends her husband; more blind loyalty. Simon sinks lower, if possibly, through his criminal antics to make money fast. Though there is some retribution when he is sacked once this is revealed, by the novel’s end he is taking the family away to a new job where most likely the abuse will continue.
Andrew, as I see him, is The Casual Vacancy’s interpretation of a ‘typical teenage boy’. He’s covered in acne, smokes and is into girls, but is an alright person when you look past the teenage angst. Andrew becomes, surprisingly, one of the most significant characters in the book and has a major impact on Pagford politics, in creating The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother and setting off all the anonymous posts. I have a lot of respect for the character in standing up to his father’s abuse. Although originally a silent aid to Fats’ bullying, as the novel progresses Andrew begins to distance himself from Fats and the friendship disintegrates. His crush on Gaia in explores is, er, colourful detail, but always feels convincing. Ironically Andrew is a far more ‘authentic’ character than Fats, in that he always acts as himself and doesn’t plan out his personality. Andrew is among the better crafted characters.
The Bawden family, comprised of mother Kay and daughter Gaia, are also newcomers to Pagford, after Kay moved to be closer to her non-committal boyfriend Gavin. Kay is new to Pagford affairs, and as a social worker reacts with understandable shock towards the state of The Fields which has been blunted for most Pagfordians. I love when Kay has a passionate argument with the Mollison family, outnumbered but sticking to her values nonetheless. Another very likeable character. She gains the reader’s pity as Gavin endlessly leads her on; Gavin in complete contrast gains the reader’s scorn. He’s weak, cowardly and naive. He leaves Kay to confess his love to Mary Fairbrother, a week after her husband died. Gavin, as a solicitor, ought to have more wherewithal than to be so stupid – perhaps unrealistically so. He receives no reprieve and deserves none.
Gaia is very much a typical teenage girl – a good match for Andrew -and therefore realistic. I didn’t warm to her as much as Andrew and Sukhvinder, but she’s also a good person. In this novel most of the likeable characters are either teenagers or ‘outsiders’; those born and bred in Pagford have been too corrupted. Her support and defence of Sukhvinder is endearing, and the reader can empathise with her desire to escape from Pagford.
The Weedons are the family which the entire novel centres around. The family is comprised only of mother Terri, her children Krystal and Robbie, and several other extended family members who have washed their hands of Terri. The children have been in and out of care but, by the beginning of the novel, are back with Terri. Terri is battling a heroin addiction, and only managed to stay clean for the sake of her children. Her career seems to involve a mixture of prostitution and storing stolen goods. It is easy to understand why Krystal and Robbie are so damaged. Their household, in all its detail, is intended to disgust, and disgust it does. Terri is an utterly abysmal, irresponsible, weak character, yet despite this does deep down care about her children and wants to give them a better upbringing than she had; an ambition she utterly fails in. Worse than Terri is her part-time boyfriend Obbo, the most hateful character in the book, who ultimately rapes Krystal. Terri’s reaction, as ever, is to deny any wrongdoing. I felt utterly drained during these chapters. The profanity, the broken lives, the arguments… I have no idea whether this is a realistic portrayal of a family in poverty, but it certainly terrified me with the thought that anyone could live this way.
Despite the bullying, despite the irresponsible, promiscuous behaviour, I liked Krystal. Beneath the ‘chavvy’ exterior is a vulnerable girl wanting to break out and lead a successful life. This is evident from her memories of Barry and the rowing team; the pride she felt to be a part of it; the hope it gave her. This, above all else, makes Barry’s death a huge tragedy. Krystal spirals and spirals throughout the book, culminating in Robbie’s death and her eventual suicide by overdosing on her mother’s heroin. Her story is utterly heartbreaking. Perhaps even more tragic is Pagford’s opinion of her, the opinion which shall go down in history, as a selfish brat – the worst which The Fields could produce. This is the version the Mollisons will produce, and therefore become the accepted account. This has to symbolise the demonisation of the working class which occurs in some – not all – sections of right-wing politics. It’s brilliantly done.
There is little to say about Mary Fairbrother. She’s an object of pity due to Barry’s death, but there’s little development beyond that. She has a fixation on Krystal due to the fact Barry spent their anniversary – and the last day of his life – writing an article about her involvement in the rowing. While this is unfair, it’s understandable. More interesting is the opinion created of Barry. Rarely is a bad word spoken of him; in fact, I think Mary is the only character ever to do so. Even the Mollisons, his political rivals, refrained from doing so too heavily. It is easy to understand how Barry’s death caused the village to erupt into chaos in such a way; Barry seemed to be the force knitting various elements in the village together, not only politically, but also in that he was willing to listen to all sections of society. Truly a man of the people.
Phew, that character analyses dragged on longer than I expected. Just a few more points now. The variety of different narratives allow Rowling to explore every character throughout the village so that it feels like a living, breathing entity. It’s a soap opera in novel form, but better written. I particularly enjoyed how she introduced characters in the first section, describing one family who have some form of interaction with another character, the narrative then switches to this new character, etc. It flowed seemingly effortlessly. I often have trouble identifying characters in novels for at least the first few chapters, but, bizarrely, I remembered exactly who every character is in The Casual Vacancy – a testament to Rowling’s skill at creating memorable, distinct characters.
The pace is a feature which has been criticised by much of the readership expecting another Harry Potter, decrying the fact it’s ‘slow’ and ‘boring’. Yes, the pace is slow, but that’s what makes the story so rich. There’s time to develop and explore the characters and the intricate web of relationships and alliances which weaves Pagford together. If the pace had been faster from the beginning this sense of normality and realism would be lost. And for those readers who seek action and drama, the pace certainly quickens in the final 100 pages or so, which sees death, hospitals, heroism, downfalls, and a conclusion to every story. Not necessarily a satisfactory conclusion, which is fine – life goes on. Realistic once again.
I also appreciated the use of technology in the book. Computers and the internet have taken a while to translate into literature, with many writers feeling that over reliance on them destroys dramatic tension. Rowling, however, has found innovative uses for computers, and without them the plot would be far poorer.
In conclusion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a fantastic return to the literary world for J. K. Rowling. I think my enjoyment of the novel may be due to my age, as I can relate to several of the issues covered – even though there is no character I feel is very similar to myself, which is more proof of Rowling’s ability to write relatable characters. My own opinions of the issues are thus: the Fields should be reassigned to Yarvil and Bellchapel should stay open. Throughout most of the novel I was in favour of The Fields remaining part of Pagford, but then I had an epiphany: the residents would quite simply be better off not under the jurisdiction of the snobby, middle-class Pagfordians who neither understand poverty nor care to. Despite this, if I had to choose one of the candidates to vote for I would probably have gone for Colin. The Casual Vacancy was an extraordinarily and unexpected good book. I cannot wait to discover what else Rowling is working on.
Final Rating: 9.5/10