I think it's fair to say a lot of people came to The Casual Vacancy determined to hate it. Some people were going to attack it for not being Booker Prize worthy. Others were going to loathe it for not being Harry Potter. Many, judging by Amazon reviews, were more interested in the Kindle price than the book itself. Motivated partly by these naysayers, and partly by my love of her earlier work, I would admit to being equally stubborn in my determination to love the book. I wasn't disappointed.
Make no mistake, The Casual Vacancy is a strange book - at once very contemporary and deeply old-fashioned. Only a few weeks ago I was celebrating the long-and-slow virtues of Anna Karenina, written at a time when novelists were unafraid of meandering merrily along with a big cast of characters and a slow-burning plot. Rowling's new book is in that mould.
As most of you will probably already know, the story takes place in the small town of Pagford, as it prepares to hold a parish council by-election. The election, however, is only the catalyst for the central concern of the book, which is the interlinking lives of more than a dozen Pagfordians, each of whom takes a turn to share the narrative spotlight.
A lot of attention has already been placed on the book's politics (Jan Moir in the Daily Mail describes it as a 'relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature'), and I will hopefully get around to doing a post focusing on that topic soon, but to me the linchpin on which the book stands or falls is not politics but people. Theo Tait in the Guardian argues the main problem is that 'all the characters are either fairly horrible, or suicidally miserable, or dead'. I honestly couldn't disagree more.
The consequence of Rowling's polycentric structure is that each character shifts from protagonist to antagonist to unnamed (and often scathingly depicted) background figure as we pass from one chapter to the next. Unsurprisingly, particularly in a story with social rivalries at its heart, almost everyone is disliked by someone - even the heroic and dead Barry Fairbrother. Equally though, with the exception of the few villains who are not given the privilege of a chapter, each character's motives are explained, giving them a warmth and pathos which seems to have escaped Tait.
Critics have already compared the book with George Eliot's Middlemarch ('Mugglemarch' being my favourite of the deluge of Potter puns), and it seems that Rowling's desire is to imitate Eliot's desire to use the novel form to provoke sympathy in her readers. The tragedy of the book isn't as simple as the middle-class failing to care for the vulnerable (as tempting a reading as that is for angrily defensive middle-class columnists), but that none of the characters come to understand each other as well as the reader does - we can sympathise with everyone because we know why they act the way they do, whereas they themselves are almost invariably trapped by narrow-mindedness, the protagonist of their own story. It might be depressing to admit, but that seems a pretty fair characterisation of the human condition.
With such a wide range of characters, it's natural that every reader will have favourites, and equally emphatic non-favourites. I happened to love the literally morbidly obese Dickensian villain Howard Mollison, who grotesquely dominates Pagford with more good humour than the rest of the cast combined. The five central teenagers are clearly close to Rowling's heart, even the Wildean sociopath Fats (yes, that is his name), while the majority of the adult cast can only aspire to a well-executed blend of pathos and pathetic.
Once these characters are in place, which takes a slow-moving but enthralling couple of hundred pages, the plot begins to roll, and proves to be just as clever as the concluding Harry Potters. From the mustard seeds of petty squabbles comes increasingly mountainous strife, culminating in a series of tragedies which are both inevitable and oh-so-avoidable. It is here that Rowling's investment in those early chapters comes to fruition, as figures we have come to believe in (if not, on the whole, love) begin to crack in front of our eyes in traumatically credible ways. From destructive OCD (a much misunderstood condition, which Rowling handles well) to self-harm, from sexual and domestic abuse to cyber-bullying, the chaos that is wreaked on Pagford is certainly socially relevant.
One area where Rowling has always faced criticism has been her prose style. Harold Bloom damned Harry Potter, saying 'Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing,' while The Casual Vacancy has come in for similar criticism. I can't say I agree at all - the writing style achieves the admirably modest goal of generally fading into the background, with the occasionally delicious turn-of-phrase - the residents of genteel Pagford and the much-scorned Fields estate are 'cleanly divided' by the aisle of the parish church, skewering in an adverb the visceral dislike one group has for the other.
Overall, then, this is a remarkable book - at once undeniably readable and unashamedly challenging, carrying the reader along with it's troubled anti-heroes while simultaneously exposing their own pretensions and prejudices. If it manages to find it's perfect audience, which I suspect might include a lot of readers who would instinctively snobbishly ignore it on the basis of it being the first adult book by a popular children's author, it can't fail to be a hit.
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