It takes courage to end an immensely successful series. Especially one that gave its author fame, glory and much money – it would have been easier to sit back and enjoy it. Rowling however has chosen to break away completely and write a novel for adults. I am not sure that any other book of Rowling's will reach the same dizzy heights of the Potter series but I think many people, like me, will be curious enough to read The Casual Vacancy.
This is a novel that takes a hard, long look at reality and discovers that life is – in the main - unfair and depressing. It is a straightforward story of the residents of Pagford – adults and children who live in disconnected universes from each other except when tragedy pushes them into making tenuous connections.
When Barry Fairweather, a parish councilor, dies unexpectedly, the adults of Pagford clumsily plot to gain his seat on the council (the casual vacancy of the title). The book captures Pagford at a crucial moment in its history and presents its residents at their worst.
There is Simon Price, a wife beater who terrorizes his children with words and physical violence, Gavin Hughes, weak and unlikable, who is not interested in the parish seat but in the wife of the dead man, Colin “Cubby” Walls, who is paralyzed by his own internal demons, ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison, who is only able to see people in terms of what use they are to him, his son, Mike Mollison who cannot grow out of his parents’ shadow… the only male who is remotely appealing - in terms of looks and personality - is the Sikh surgeon, Vikram Jawanda who makes brief appearances through the book.
Rowling is not kind to the women either. At one end of the spectrum is Terri Weedon, heroin addict and sometimes prostitute who is unable to break free from her destructive downward spiral. But at the other end, the women with careers and socially acceptable relationships (like Kay Bawdon, the social worker or Ruth Price, guidance counselor) don’t seem to be doing much better either.
Their relationships are at best about an ability to deny the truth and at their worst, about physical and emotional abuse. These are adults who do not know how to be happy and consequently fill their lives and those around them with misery and pain.
Uniting them is a common thread of snobbishness, of being better than ‘those’ people found in the Fields – ‘Pagford’s unwanted burden’ - which houses the poorer sections of Pagford. There is deep resentment that “the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men” should study in the same school and enjoy the same benefits as Pagford’s brightest and best. Pagford likes to pretend that it is an idyllic paradise but Rowling is pitiless in her exposure of their pretensions.
The children of Pagford are delineated clearly and come alive with Rowling’s pen – she has after all had much practice at that! But these are not the loved, socially adjusted, nice children of the Potter books. These are children of the 20th century – sex, drugs and computers are the key forces in their lives. Their parents suck all the fun out of their lives, and make them nasty and mean. Andrew Price copes with his father’s abusive bullying by creating a secret life and posts anonymous online messages revealing his father’s dishonesty on the parish website, Sukhvinder deals with her mother’s angry disapproval by repeatedly cutting herself… But hiding beneath the abnormal actions are normal teenagers who want to get on with their lives but are still learning how.
Krystal Weedon, a child of the Fields (and a symbol of all that is wrong with Fields for Pagford’s residents), is one of the most likeable characters in the book. If one is willing to look beyond her abrasive personality and her abundant swearing, Krystal has pluck and determination. She also genuinely cares about her younger brother and may make something of herself if given a few chances.
But Rowling denies her the opportunity. Darkness dominates as the novel moves to its inexorable end. Darkness, as a trend, is clear in the later Potter books as well. The difference here is that the good people don’t stand a chance – no matter how much they try, their efforts to make a difference are but a temporary and fragile barrier against the dark, harsh and ugly world that Rowling sees as reality and has uncompromisingly presented.
I read this book because it has Rowling’s name on the cover. The plot has few surprises and it is clear, early on, that tragedy waits to spread her wings. It is not all dark in the end, to be fair - there is some redemption for Andrew who is moving out of Pagford and is hopeful that his new locale will be better. Sukhvinder has mastered her hatred of herself and risen above her family’s patronizing attitude to her, Kay walks away from her dead end relationship and may begin anew, creating the possibility of something better for her daughter Gaia.
The renewals are tenuous though and – and frankly, I found the focus on the inevitable march of life towards death and early, untimely deaths that the novel presents rather depressing. Not a book I would read more than once!