After the Harry Potter series established J.K. Rowling as the most famous author in the world, it was a brave decision for her to move away from the series, genre and age group which made her name and fortune, venturing into the Muggle world for her first adult novel. The press release for the book was vague: a local Councillor dies, throwing his small-town community into an uproar in the attempt to elect the right person to fill his place.
Seriously? I thought when I heard the title and synopsis. Local politics? Yawn. But The Casual Vacancy isn't about politics, it's about people. Focusing on a small community, a few central families, J. K. Rowling delves beneath the seedy stories of the average British newspaper, and explores the humans behind the headlines. The Casual Vacancy is compulsively readable, but slower-paced than the action-packed, plot-driven Potter books. The town of Pagford is a microcosm of Britain, with a large cast of characters selected from all walks of life: the smug, wealthy Councillor and Deli owner Howard Mollison, Doctor Parminder Jawanda and her family, teachers and social workers, to Terri, Krystal and Robbie Weedon who live on the council estate, The Fields, on the border between Pagford and nearby Yarvil.
The Weedons are those people: the bottom of the pecking order, despised by all. Mum Terri is a recovering heroin addict, many times fallen off the wagon and on her last chance, teenage daughter Krystal is promiscuous, foul-mouthed, generally considered to be trouble, but she loves her family, and is just trying to make the best of the rough world she was born into. Barry Fairbrother thought she was worth a chance at a better life, but now Barry is dead, and the future of her council estate and the addiction clinic which is trying to save her mother, are in doubt. Pagford doesn't want an estate full of the unemployed, single parents, drug addicts, "People Like That." It lowers the tone of the town. Why should Pagford have to take responsibility for People Like That? People Like That intrude on the Respectable Citizens' comfort zones. The Respectable Citizens can't just make People Like That disappear, but they'd rather not have to acknowledge their existence.
The Casual Vacancy burns with an anger, a passionate call for justice for the social outcasts comparable to Dickens at his strongest: an exposure of hypocrisy, prejudice and complacency and forcing us to look at People Like That as human beings. If we can write off the poor as being only responsible for their own predicament, then it spares us the need for uncomfortable compassion. Rowling challenges us to ask ourselves: what right do we as humans have to give up on our fellow-creatures? How dare we? If The Casual Vacancy is a character study of a nation, it is a damning one. Pagford is a town of smug, self-satisfied and self-obsessed Daily Mail readers without a thought for anyone outside their own head. They may not be all bad; some have redeeming qualities, while even the most grotesque have moments to evoke pity, if nothing grander, but no one is entirely likable.
If I have a criticism of the book, it's that Rowling seems to have squeezed too many "issues" into the book: there are poverty, drugs, teenage sex, bullying and cyber-bullying, self-harm, domestic abuse (physical, emotional and sexual,) rape, suicide, mental illness, adultery. All the taboos in writing for children have been taken away, and any word, theme or scene that would be inappropriate in her previous work seems to have found a home in The Casual Vacancy. I wouldn't call any of it gratuitous, though it could be if Rowling were a less sincere or capable writer, but I suspect it may be a little too much for one novel.
Despite the awfulness of most of its characters, The Casual Vacancy made me care, because Rowling's storytelling and fury drove the story on. The prose is easily readable, but the themes are challenging, and you can't walk away from it unchanged. Scenes of confrontation can be as angering as reading the comments at the bottom of a news article on anything to do with welfare and the benefits system. It is not a happy book, and nor should it be: its impact would be cheapened by a happy-ever-after. If there were closure for Krystal and Terri, the reader could put the book down satisfied and forget, become comfortable and complacent citizens of Pagford. With an unsatisfactory ending, we can hope that the readers might be challenged to make more of an effort to make the story spill into the real world and try to give hope to the real-life Krystals and Terris. This seems to be Rowling's challenge to her readers. Don't be those people. Surely Humanity can do better than that? Don't be Pagford.