The Casual Vacancy, J.K Rowling, Little, Brown and Company, 503 pages, $35.00
J.K Rowling’s first book since the Harry Potter series features no wizards, dementors, or house elves. Instead, The Casual Vacancy uses local politics to explore the complex social web of a small English town. With the death of a local councilor, a “casual vacancy” opens in the government of Pagford; the ensuing pursuit of his seat exposes the poorly hidden conflicts of the deceptively tranquil town. The novel takes a decidedly adult tone, with some of the children of Pagford engaging in self-harm, drug use, and sex while the adults engage in adultery and domestic abuse.
Since the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives won the last general election, in May 2010, Britain has been politically stressed, with frustrations erupting over the state of the economy. Rowling's book is very much a product of that moment, and it refers without subtlety to the coalition government's so-called “austerity program,” portrayed by much of the British media as a series of savage spending cuts. (In fact nominal spending is increasing, and thanks to inflation the actual cuts are negligible.) It's a good time for a novel that explores council funding, the plight of the poor, and the snobbery of the privileged. Rowling's book deals with these issues more capably than you may have expected, and while it has its literary flaws, the novel manages to be more than simply a social commentary.
Rowling herself has been a vocal supporter of the Labour Party, the party that established the British welfare state. In her words, "I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that [Prime Minister David] Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall." These sympathies are not concealed in The Casual Vacancy. One of the novel's most tragic characters is Krystal Weedon, a girl who comes from the Fields, a nearby housing estate—in American terms, a public housing project—but who goes to school with children from Pagford, much to the annoyance of the snobbish locals. Her mother is a heroin addict and sometime prostitute, and her younger brother is neglected. Thankfully the novel is not explicitly pro-Labour, and in fact it is possible to come away from the book more frustrated than enthused with the welfare state.
Howard Mollison, an ambitious and morbidly obese deli owner, is almost gleeful at the news of the unexpected vacancy. Thinking about the housing estate that is the center of much of the novel’s conflicts Howard reflects on its inhabitants:
There was nothing, as far as Howard could see, to stop the Fielders growing fresh vegetables; nothing to stop them disciplining their sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring; nothing to stop them pulling themselves together as a community and tackling the dirt and the shabbiness; nothing to stop them cleaning themselves up and taking jobs; nothing at all.
Such sentiments should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time exposed to the tumultuous and divisive British class system. Although the point of the passage is to illustrate the unpleasantness of Howard, it betrays a frustration many Britons feel about those who largely rely on governmnet support—a frustration that helps fuel class tensions (and that overlooks the role the government itself has played in making it harder for poor people to get jobs, acquire property, and put a dent in petty crime).
Howard is not the only unlikeable character in the novel. Theo Tait, writing in The Guardian, has noted the similarities between The Casual Vacancy's antagonists and those of the Harry Potter series. The one obvious thing that the books have in common, he writes, is "a strong dislike of mean, unsympathetic, small-minded folk. The inhabitants of Pagford—shopkeepers, window-twitchers, Daily Mail readers—are mostly hateful Muggles, more realistic versions of the Dursleys, the awful family who keep poor Harry stashed in the cupboard under the stairs."
The children in The Casual Vacancy are different from the children chronicled in the Harry Potter series, though they do demonstrate a sort of initiative and cunning that will be familiar to Rowling's readers. Pagford's teens deal with all of the usual social and sexual frustrations that teenagers experience. Indeed, the characters, young and old alike, tend to be stereotypical and predictable. There is the awkward teenager, the class skank, the young and well-intended social worker, the annoying existentialist adolescent, the local town gossipers. The net effect is to reduce the authenticity that Rowling is aiming for.
The book's setting also undermines its believability. The UK is slightly smaller than Michigan with a population more than double that of Texas, so diverse socio-economic groups are never far apart. Yet even in such a crowded country, the proximity of a particularly brutal junkie-infested housing estate to the idealized picturesque town described is hard to imagine. All the same, Rowling conjures a compelling set of circumstances that keeps the story engaging.
And there is something more here, an element of the book that transcends Rowling's Labour politics and makes the novel more universal. It is not, as some have suggested, a preachy call for the British middle class to be more aware of the plight of the underserving poor in the UK. Just about all of the characters in the novel, rich or poor, face problems—medical, professional, financial. Little in the book suggests that more involvement on the part of local authorities could have prevented the tragedies that befall Krystal and other residents of the Fields. If Rowling was trying to make a case for a more activist state, she failed.
Not even conflict between the rich and poor is the dominant theme in The Casual Vacancy. More than anything else Rowling exposes selfishness, stupidity, and tragedy on every level of the class system, painfully reminding us that no one is exempt from their consequences.