What do you do for an encore? You’re a writer, and you’ve written the most successful series of novels in history. The movies have all been made. The theme park is flourishing. It’s time to move on. What do you write?
J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is her first published novel since the Harry Potter series concluded. And I wish I could just review it as I would any novel. But you really can’t. I’m reminded of Shaquille O’Neill’s first rap album. It sold like hotcakes, because it was a rap album by Shaq. The label printed hundreds of thousands of CDs for his second album. Almost all of which are sitting in a warehouse somewhere. The Casual Vacancy was always going to sell. But it had better be good.
I can say that I was profoundly moved by it. I can say that I was weeping at the end. I can say that the writing is pointed and powerful and strong, the characters well-defined, the setting beautifully realized. It’s also not very . . . likeable. And that could be a problem, if you let it be one.
The Harry Potter books were marvelously successful in part because we felt so at home in them. We liked Harry and Ron and Hermione, we like the Weasley twins and the whole Weasley family, we like pretty much all the teachers at Hogwarts, except maybe Snape, who turns out to be the most heroic of them all. We like hanging out there, in the Gryffindor common room, or Dumbledore’s office, or on the Quidditch pitch.
I didn’t really like any of the characters in The Casual Vacancy. I thought they were brilliantly written, convincingly human, weak and foolish and cowardly and mean and only occasionally heroic or good. I don’t want to live in Pagford; the small English town where the novel is set. Pagford was convincingly described, and I don’t doubt its authenticity. But I didn’t enjoy myself there. It’s a town that needs fixing. It’s a town that needs purging, of all its cruelty and small-mindedness. I want to go there, find the children who live there, hug them tightly, tell them they’re going to be okay. But I’m not even sure if that’s true.
I cannot say how much I admire this book, or Rowling’s courage for have written it. One of the things she has done with her Potter millions is found an organization called Lumos, dedicated to protecting disadvantaged children. Check out their website–it’s wonderful. The Casual Vacancy is clearly intended to continue by other means her campaign of awareness, of child poverty and abuse. At the heart of the book is a sixteen-year old girl, dirt poor, her Mom a drug addict, who spends the novel fighting and brawling and snarling and swearing, desperately clawing to hold her family together–to keep her Mom from using and keep her three-year old brother fed and clothed and healthy and in pre-school. Her name is Krystal Weedon, and when she realizes that, for her, her best chance of any possible actual hopeful future is teen pregnancy, preferably by a middle-class boy whose parents might feel some grandparently sense of responsibility towards her child, we have to sadly acknowledge that she may well be right. And Rowling makes us weep for this girl, helps us understand the heroism of her ferocious battle upwards. And how ultimately doomed it is.
And the book isn’t actually about Krystal at all. It’s about local politics, and how the parish council of the comfortable middle-class town of Pagford comes unglued when one of the councilors dies unexpectedly. See Pagford is nice. Pagford’s homes are older and beautifully situated, with a nice view. And Pagford’s residents want to keep it that way. Yarvil, next door, is larger, and is where most Pagfordians work. But it’s grimier, poorer, less nice. See, right between the two towns is a neighborhood called the Fields, dirt poor, drug addicted, welfare housing, filthy. With a methadone clinic, for the heroin addicts. And, unfortunately, the Fields is part of Pagford. Pagfordians don’t want it, don’t want responsibility for its denizens, think it belongs with Yarvil. The parish council is divided equally between those who want to redistrict the Fields away, and those who urge compassion. A teacher at the local school, Barry Fairbrother heads the pro-Fields faction, and Howard Mollison, the anti-Fields forces. The novel begins with Barry’s death, an aneurism, age 40. The rest of the novel deals with the election which will replace him.
But The Casual Vacancy (the title comes from the legal term when a council spot becomes vacant), spends as much time dealing with the local teenagers as it does with their parents. In particular, it follows Andrew Price (Arf), whose father is a vicious abusive brute who takes it into his head to run for the vacant council seat, Arf’s best friend, Stuart Wall, (Fats), a thin and self-possessed boy capable of the most appalling cruelty, whose greatly detested father is assistant headmaster at their school, and Fats off-and-on girlfriend Krystal Weedon, who lives at The Fields. So Arf, Fats, Krystal. Harry, Ron and Hermione? Yeah, maybe, if Hermione were completely screwed up and also the main character. And Ron was a sociopath. They even do magic, the kind that kids these days actually know more about than their elders. Computer magic. The kids know things about the grown-ups in town, as kids will do, and eventually they hack into the parish council website, and leave damaging messages detailing what they know, all signed ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” And things really start coming apart at the seams.
The novel has many many characters, as a novel about an election would have. To me, one of the most compelling families it describes is the Jawanda family, formerly Sikh, but by now thoroughly English. Parminder, the wife, is a doctor, and serves on the Parish council, where she was Barry’s closest ally. Vikram, her husband, is a cardiologist, and a man who features in the erotic fantasies of many a Pagford woman, though he’s completely devoted to Parminder. But Parminder is more fragile than Barry, less confident, and completely intolerant of the struggles of her youngest daughter, Sukhvinder, who is not like her popular and brilliant sisters. And because of Sukhvinder’s insecurities, she has become a target of Fats, who uses the internet to torment her, and who has succeeded in driving her self-loathing to the point that she cuts herself.
Race and class, and the ferocious ways in which nice people in a nice town fight to keep it that way, just the way they like it. The cruelty of children, and the tormented insecurities of the adults. And at the middle of it all, the tragic and profane and angry central figure of Krystal, who wants so badly for someone to treat her with some kindness.
It’s a tremendous novel. It’s not nice. It’s full of cruelty and fear and abuse and the terrible lengths people will go to to protect theirs. And it’s a novel about children who don’t have a chance, children who are products of neglect and poverty and drug addiction. It’s about Jay-Z, and Song cry. It’s about a middle-aged woman’s fantasies about a boy band, and a man lost in his own OCD, and a triumphant girls’ rowing team. It’s a novel of compassion, about people who mostly have lost theirs.
We have to do more. We have to look around us, and see what more needs to be done. There are kids who need us. See them. I honor J. K. Rowling’s achievement with this remarkable novel.