Released last year to bated breaths and eager eyes, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first foray into the adult-book market. Having held back from reading it when it first came out so I could savour every page and give the book the measured, impartial critic it deserved (the worry was that, had I devoured it so quickly like I did with the final Harry Potter book, I would miss nuances like I did with my first time reading of HP VII, so keen was I to get to the end of the saga), I found myself extremely disappointed with The Casual Vacancy, which was, at best, overly-detailed and ambitious, and at worst, a self-satisfied, muddling mess.
The action kicks off when well-loved Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother bites the dust due to a surprise bout of aneurism in his brain. Initially, the townpeople of Pagford, the fictitious West Country town where the book is set, mourn his death, but soon, practicalities kick in. His death leaves a “casual vacancy” to be filled, and three men put themselves forward: Miles Mollison, a lawyer and family man is the frontrunner, being the son of Howard Mollison, the leader of the Parish Council, but there is also Deputy headteacher Colin Walls, who wants to run out of love of Barry, as well as bullying petty crook Simon Price, who, on hearing of the unofficial perks of being on the council, can’t resist the idea of receiving some bribes of his own.
Having penned the source material of the box office smashes Harry Potter, one can’t help but think she’s got half a mind of the movie rights of this book. For, whilst the setting, Pagford, is a small town, the themes of the book are anything but. Adultery, drugs, self-harm, racism, abuse, duplicity, you name it, this book’s got it. There are several families which come into focus, and the actions of each have repercussions on other people, some of these which trigger off a Domino effect into something much larger. But whilst this makes for interesting films, such as Magnolia or Short Cuts, on paper, it harder to keep track of, particularly at the start when she juggles between narratives and it is hard to keep up.
That is not to say the book is a total failure. As with Harry Potter, there are moments of extreme wit – her describing of a teenage boy band that one of the wives in the novel becomes obsessed with can only be sculpted on One Direction, and is an incisive comment on how little there is to live for when the spark goes out of a marriage. Similarly, in the latter act of the book, when the action really takes off and people begin posting on the Pagford town message board as The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother, chaos, and dark humour, reigns. As with some of the later Harry Potter books, when Rowling gives the internal monologue of the characters in The Casual Vacancy, she offers a window into their psyches, however dislikeable, and it takes a talented writer to do that.
But even as the most ardent Harry Potter fangirl, I cannot overlook all the flaws in this novel. First and foremost, it strives for so much, and in doing so, achieves so little. I read this book whilst also reading Tampa by Alissa Nutting and Cell by Stephen King, and compared to this book, the narratives of those two are so straight-forward and unpretentious, it made me want to cry tears of joy. Even if we put my inability to follow the plot down to me being a bit dense, there are other things – Rowling’s depiction of a crack addict and the conditions she lives in could be lifted right out of an anti-drugs campaign they made for teenagers, so laden are they with caricature.
Very few characters in the novel are likeable. Sukhvinder Jawanda is one of the few that I liked, and it is credit to the novel that she gets a brief glimpse of redemption. But I despised pretty much everyone else in the novel, so much so that, when tragedy did strike at the end, that I was left with a hollow “so what?” feeling that contrasted with the endless tears I shed in reading the Harry Potter books, and even then, you could feel Rowling desperately trying, to no avail, to pull at her readers’ heartstrings. The teenagers are painted with a general paintbrush, the majority of them being antagonistic, ungrateful to their parents and far more interested in getting laid than studying. I’ve been a teenager and that’s just not how it is. Where has Rowling been getting information, episodes of Skins?
Where the teenagers are whiny little gimps, the adults are described as hypocrites who are only out for mercenary gain. They only think of themselves and aren’t able to see how their own kids are rebelling right under their eyes. Whilst no doubt haphazard parenting exists, for there to be so many poor parents, all so closely linked, beggars belief.
Recently, Miley Cyrus cringed out the world at the MTV Awards by “twerking” and basically just trying to shed her good girl image so much that it reeked of desperation and trying too hard. With The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling is doing the literary version of exactly the same thing. Sex, drugs and gratuitous swearing (hell, I’m a tetchy football fan with an attitude problem and I don’t even swear as much as the saps in this novel do), I cringed on pretty much every page. That Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was used as a motif throughout the novel just compounds the humiliation that was reading The Casual Vacancy.