J. K. Rowling, known the world over for her Harry Potter success, has written this, The Casual Vacancy, for an all new, adult audience. One might have thought that Rowling would creep onto the adult market with something less challenging, but no, Rowling bursts out with a satirical novel which depicts the difficulties and the petty differences of village culture.
Rowling’s narrative is set in Pagford, a wonderfully tranquil, quintessentially traditional, village in the West Country. This haven lies on the outskirts of bustling town, Yarvil, but is thankfully shielded from view by a well placed hill. However, mid-way between these two lies housing estate, The Fields – socially part of Yarvil but geographically closer to Pagford – it is the shame of many Pagford residents with its criminals and drug addicts.
Pagford town is thrown into disarray, however, when Barry Fairbrother, likeable Parish Council member in his forties, collapses and dies in the middle of the golf club car park from a sudden aneurysm. The town then has its casual vacancy within the Council and a big political decision soon to be settled.
This issue of the casual vacancy is the central river which runs throughout the book, into which many other stream-like stories flow. Rowling has taken the complexities of village life and has managed to weave together the family connections, the work colleges and the friends to create a convincing picture of life in Pagford. A major issue that is being dealt with by Pagford Parish Council – headed by Howard Mollison (old, pompous and dangerously overweight) – is that of The Fields, and whether their connection to Pagford should be terminated, or whether its residents should be supported and helped out of their drug induced rut.
Barry Fairbrother, who presented Pagford with a Fields success story as he managed to get himself out of the estate and into a good job with a loving family in Pagford, wholeheartedly supported The Field’s cause. He, for example, showed support for hardened, but kind hearted teen, Krystal Weedon, who lives with a recovering heroin addict for a mother and takes care of her three year old brother, Robbie. Barry’s death casts The Field’s fate into uncertainty as other Pagford parishioners wish to part from the responsibility and take away the rehabilitation centre.
One of the great qualities of this narrative is its ability to subtly flow from one Pagford perspective to another, each offering their opinion of Pagford life and its residents – who aren’t as upstanding as they appear on the surface. That seems to be the thing with village life – secrets like an abusive father, affairs, and child molestation are all kept in heavily bolted closet. The (often unruly) teenagers appear to offer the more honest perspectives, seeing their parents clearly and offering a truthful, albeit harsh, picture almost like a Fool in a Shakespeare play.
Through this satirical narrative, J. K. Rowling criticises the traditional, or rather, backward views that can fester within the some quiet, secluded, country communities. Though not an easy read – her use of extravagant vocabulary is at times unnecessary and I found I had to read with a dictionary beside me – it is still an interesting insight into a certain culture that is a far cry from modern society yet, almost certainly, still alive and well in little pockets throughout Great Britain. Her characters are, on the whole, well formed. Some, like stuffy Howard Mollison and his quivering son, Miles, appear as caricatures – turning some scenes into farce. Yet with the sheer volume and range of characters that Rowling depicts, you are still learning about the individuals, their pasts and their desired futures, until the very end, which can be off putting – it is as if the latter stages of the story want to roll swiftly downhill towards its shocking conclusion but keep getting stuck on bumps along the way.
And what a conclusion it does reach. The end of the novel has an air of reluctant inevitability which, although fitting, is also disappointing as Rowling states that the good do not always win, and that luck does not always favour the brave. That being said, the conclusion is certainly satisfactory, and there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, both within Pagford and beyond it, for some of its residents.