First, I must declare an interest. Many years ago, when I was a PhD student in Edinburgh, I used to spend much of my time writing in my favourite café. It made great coffee, you could sit for hours undisturbed, but more importantly it was quiet – so quiet in fact that I was often the only person there.
Periodically, a girl of about my age would come in. She’d sit at the other side of the café, her pushchair beside her, and she would write too. We never spoke, we probably barely acknowledged each other, but in the years that followed I often wondered if, perhaps, this had been J.K. Rowling.
Of course, it’s well known how her book turned out. Oddly, and for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, my thesis on D.H. Lawrence’s syntax has yet to land a multi-million pound film deal, but I’ve followed Rowling’s career since then with great interest.
As a young journalist working in politics I found her portrayal of the Ministry of Magic and Rita Skeeter an insightful take on two worlds I got to know well, and the big themes she tackled in Harry Potter were, for the most part, perceptively and intelligently explored (although, personally, I could have done without the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare).
So it was with some anticipation that I heard she was publishing again. It takes great courage and self-belief to strike out in a new direction after such massive success, and she faced two unenviable problems. Rowling’s loyal fans were likely to buy whatever she wrote regardless of their usual tastes – so there was the huge risk of reader disappointment and bad reviews. But she also had a prose style highly suitable for a younger audience, and The Casual Vacancy was an adult book, with adult themes, for an adult market.
The book, as you’ll no doubt have seen, is enormous. It spans 503 pages from start to finish and is divided into seven parts. That I read it in two days is testament to its readability, but that is not to say that it’s without its flaws. Events in parts five and six left me wishing that the story was resolving in a different direction, party because I longed for a bit of light with the shade, partly because it seemed too relentlessly gritty – and I’m speaking here as someone who has worked with the homeless.
That Rowling has tackled the topic of ‘the underclass’ is to her credit. Many of the themes explored here are profoundly important, and many also appeared in Harry Potter. Whereas in Potter they are drawn out into larger truths, here they are focussed inwards by the small minds within a small community.
Some commentators have dubbed the book ‘Mugglemarch’, but this doesn’t ring true. George Eliot’s Middlemarch revealed universal truths. The truths in Rowling’s book are focussed small, however universal they may be. Often, they are described with a sensitivity that is deeply moving, such as in this description of the ‘extravagantly obese’ Howard Mollison:
‘After his father had left, his mother had sat him at the head of the table, between herself and his grandmother, and been hurt if he did not take seconds. Steadily, he had grown to fill the space between the two women, as heavy at twelve as the father who had left them’. (p.348)
It is a beautiful depiction of Mollison’s physical and emotional evolution, but it is also Mollison-specific. Even Fats, in his quest for ‘authenticity’ is focussed entirely on himself. Perhaps this is Rowling’s aim, to reveal the small-mindedness of a small town, but to compare it to Eliot’s insights into the human condition is entirely wrong.
Also wrong, interestingly, is any ‘shock horror’ factor in the book’s sexually explicit content, portrayal of drug addicted prostitution and use of bad language. For me, the swearing in Harry Potter never sat comfortably. It jarred in the overall narrative, and often seemed forced or crow-barred in. Here, it sits seamlessly, a consistent and believable part of the fictional world.
Contrary to what you may have read, the sexually explicit content is not the most shocking part of the book. What is shocking is the frisson of recognition you may feel at some of the characters’ motivations. While they are certainly an unsympathetic bunch largely devoid of much inner life, there are moments when you see yourself in their behaviour. Here’s Miles mulling over Barry Fairbrother’s sudden death:
‘Even as they had discussed what they had been forced to witness, each trying to drive out vague feelings of fright and shock, feathery little ripples of excitement had tickled Miles’ insides at the thought of delivering the news to his father. He had intended to wait until seven, but fear that somebody else might beat him to it had propelled him to the telephone early’. (p.7)
Recognise that depiction of small town gossip? I do.
The Casual Vacancy is a good book. While it may not be in the same class as Middlemarch as a study of provincial life, it is immensely readable, something that – for many – Middlemarch is not. That someone of Rowling’s profile is choosing to explore the themes seen here is very good news.
Yes it could do with a further edit, yes there is a lack of development in the various motivations of ‘Barry Fairbrother’ post mortem, and yes, audience expectations are further confused by the choice of cover, which (to me) looks more suited to 1950s crime fiction. But in an increasingly self-focussed 21st century society, perhaps Rowling has done us all a favour. The Casual Vacancy doesn’t encourage us to escape into a fantasy world, nor does it draw out large-scale relevance from our day-to-day prejudices. Its message, very clearly, is ‘Look at yourselves’.