The Mag This Week

In this week’s Books page:

Big Whingeing: The Casual Vacancy

The popular expectation was thatThe Casual Vacancy would do whatHarry Potter did, even if it wasn’t magical: give JK Rowling’s fans, across age brackets, something to read. So what if it’s a novel for grown ups? The Harry Potter series was meant to be for kids, but look how many adults are Potterheads.

The Casual Vacancy is not for all age groups. In fact, one of its central messages is that adults haven’t the faintest what goes in children’s heads. So if you thought you were a good parent or that your parent might understand your adolescent woes, Rowling has two words for you: forget it. There’s no meeting ground between the old and young, unless a terrible tragedy upsets this unhappy natural order.

Ostensibly, The Casual Vacancy is about a local election in a small town named Pagford, whose steeple-spiked skyline against a blood red background illustrates the back cover. When one parish councillor dies unexpectedly, someone needs to take his place and Pagford’s finest begin plotting against one another. The elections reveal what a snobbish, narrow-minded and largely contemptible set grown-ups are. Simon Price is a wife-beater. Howard Mollison is grotesquely obese and treats people like they’re chess pieces. Gavin Hughes is a hypocrite. Mike Mollison is an overgrown baby. Brown people give Rowling a cheer because the one decent chap, both in terms of behaviour and looks, is a Sikh surgeon. The women don’t fare much better, though they get more sympathy from Rowling. All of them are weak, quivering masses of anxieties. They take part in the pettiness and tolerate the abuse so that there is a façade of harmony. Using these adults, Rowling spends 500 pages describing the town’s petty politics and the uncharitable nature of a parish obsessed with appearance and class.

And let’s face it, that is an absolutely rubbish cover.

Interestingly, Rowling grew up in a village like Pagford, named Winterbourne. The school in The Casual Vacancy is named Winterdown. It’s easy to imagine Rowling’s mother, who lived with multiple sclerosis for 10years, in the frantic helplessness of the women in the novel, who can do nothing as events and their families slip out from their protective control. Simon, with his roaring rage, is reminiscent of Rowling’s ex-husband who has admitted in interviews that he hit her. Like all the teens in Pagford, Rowling too was desperate to leave home because her relationship with her father was unpleasant (they’re not on speaking terms). Perhaps like Krystal, who has a brother and an addict mother who can barely function, Rowling had to raise her younger sister as a teenager while her own mother battled the onset of MS. Also, Rowling has known poverty intimately having been an unemployed single mother, which explains the distaste with which Rowling depicts Pagford residents who turn their nose up at the poor who survive on welfare.

The good news is that Rowling is able to hold a reader’s attention for most of the novel. The bad news is that The Casual Vacancy lacks complexity, both in terms of storytelling as well as characterisation. The good guy is called Fairweather, the girl whose mother is a meth addict is named Krystal Weedon — how’s that for subtlety? Rowling’s nihilism is quickly evident and while many characters are twisted, there aren’t many twists in the novel.

Pagford’s teenagers are perhaps the only ones that hover around normal, though one of the objectives of the novel seems to be to suck all the fun out of their lives. Their little cruelties seem epic, like posting nasty messages on Facebook, and the pleasures can be as simple as the prettiest girl in class saying hello to you. That said, Sukhvinder cuts herself, Andrew’s father bludgeons him; Krystal raises a toddler brother, takes care of her mother and gets raped.

More than the election, The Casual Vacancy is about the loss of innocence as the children get embroiled in the workings of the adult world. However, considering the detail and attention Rowling lavishes on the flatly-characterised and unpleasant adults, Rowling’s cursory summary of the changes in Sukhvinder and Andrew at the end is perhaps the biggest betrayal on the part of the author. It’s almost as though Rowling relishes the breakdown more than the recovery.

If you’re looking for Harry Potter and his crew in The Casual Vacancy, you’ll find them. Remove the details and reduce the characters to prototypes, and Barry — the kindly teacher who dies — is Albus Dumbledore. Andrew, the battered teenager who ultimately shows integrity, has acne instead of a lightning-shaped scar. The stern Nana Cath, who does her best to give temporary refuge to a tribe of unfortunate children including Krystal, could be Professor McGonagall.

The real similarity between the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancyis the vision of adulthood as an unforgiving, humourless condition. As Harry grew older, the stories became darker, more thriller-esque and less fun. One by one, every character that had been a support to Harry (other than Hermione and Ron) died, often gorily. It was obvious that Rowling was itching to write something that didn’t have the restraints of kiddie fiction, and with The Casual Vacancy she’s done it.Sadly, though, while Harry Potterwas extraordinary, particularly the first three books, The Casual Vacancy is just mediocre. Had Rowling written this novel first, it’s unlikely we’d have sat up and noticed her.


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