Certainly Not Casual: J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

DSCN1357 - Version 2Rowling, J. K.  The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little

           Brown, 2012.

Initially, I was conscious of being rather disappointed in The Casual Vacancy, and I couldn’t at first quite grasp why I felt somehow unsatisfied. It wasn’t because of unmet expectations. I admit that my reason for buying the book, a motivation shared, I am sure, with many other readers, was an almost morbid curiosity about what Rowling was going to do without Harry Potter. But it wasn’t the lack of magic and mayhem that left me feeling a little “flat.” I was expecting neither fantasy nor gothic extravagance.

I was able to read the work very quickly. Perhaps that was what left me feeling a little deflated. I suspect I wanted something more complicated in its prose: more Anita DSCN1357 - Version 2Brookner and less Hemingway. Anita Brookner’s use of free indirect discourse concentrates ideas yet remains lyrical and engaging. One lingers over Brookner’s sentences, luxuriates in her paragraphs. Despite moments of rather interesting comparison such as “Evertree Crescent was a sickle moon of 1930s bungalows” (15), Rowling’s diction is straightforward; her paragraphs, concise and quite heavily reliant on dialogue. I’m not apologising for a preference for a lyrical style; I’m looking for an explanation for my initial sense of let-down as I was reading the book.  I felt rushed along through the events of the novel and was a little overwhelmed by the wealth of characters demanding my attention. On whom should I focus? About whom should I care? Is there actually a protagonist in this work other than the deceased Barry Fairbrother whose death is so significant for so many of the other characters?

DSCN1327Here Rowling shows a deft touch because although so many characters populate her novel, she does give them individuality without allowing them to descend into caricature. Although her characters are recognisable as types of people, they aren’t really stereotypes or clichés. One does feel that one knows people like the Mollisons or families living the same miseries as experienced by the Walls. Pagford and Yarvil are recognizable places. Perhaps this veracity is one of the elements contributing to my dissatisfaction with the work. It is actually rather depressing. No-one in Pagford or Yarvil seems particularly happy. They struggle with mid-life crises; they are ailing in health, tormented at school or at home. Driven by ambition or despair, they lie and cheat, are cruel and manipulative. Some are kind and under-appreciated. While most of her characters have some redeeming qualities, others are totally despicable. In other words, Rowling creates a cross-section of society in contemporary Britain. No wonder I felt a little depressed.

DSCN1327The sudden death of Councillor Fairbrother at the beginning of The Casual Vacancy precipitates the action of the novel, which ends not long after the election of his successor. Rowling is successful in showing how the death not only has immediate implications for the running of Pagford but also affects the personal lives of individuals seemingly unconnected to local politics. Very sympathetic with and understanding of the anguish experienced by her characters, Rowling demonstrates a particular insight into the horrors of adolescent existence that is both convincing and compassionate. As I read further into the novel, I found myself making comparisons between Rowling’s work in The Casual Vacancy and Joanna Trollope’s books. Both writers challenge social conditions and examine how societal expectations and economic conditions restrict personal fulfilment. The Casual Vacancy has a larger cast perhaps than Trollope’s works, which seem to focus more tightly on one individual or one family.

DSCN1327The Casual Vacancy is at its strongest in its critique of social snobbery and of class divisions and constraints, and it was when I began to see that the heart of the novel is this social critique that I began to feel a little less down-hearted. I also liked the way that each of the seven parts of the novel is introduced epigrammatically (if there is such a word) by a quotation from the seventh edition of Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration. This technique lends a somewhat wry humour to the tone of a book and is the one instance, for me at any rate, where I have a sense of the omniscient narrator intruding into the work and injecting some comic relief. However, ultimately, I find Rowling’s world-view very bleak, and it is in this ultimate pessimism that The Casual Vacancy shares ground withDSCN1362 Rowling’s Harry Potter books. However, despite the fact that at the end of the novel there is the promise of change for some characters, ultimately, I find Rowling’s conclusions pessimistic.

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