Of course I had to read JK Rowling’s new book, just like everyone else, even though, from the blurb, it didn’t sound like the sort of book I’d normally read, I just wanted to see, was she more than a one trick pony? I think it can be difficult to tell exactly how talented a writer is, based on just one series, no matter how successful it is, well if The Casual Vacancy is anything to go by, JK Rowling is even better than the Harry Potter series suggests, she is absolutely brilliant.
The Casual Vacancy tells the story of the election for a seat on Pagford Parish Council, newly vacated by the deceased Barry Fairbrother. On the surface Pagford looks like the ideal little English town, nestling against the larger Yarvil, but underneath it’s a seething mass of tension, hatred and class divide. Pagford, and places like it, no matter how pretty they are, are the sort of places that personally leave me cold, I’m too much of a city girl but I’d hate living somewhere like Pagford, where everybody knows each other and the town is lorded over by a few bigwigs and their families. In Pagford the bigwig (who is literally big, he’s ginormous) is Howard Mollison, the chair of Pagford Parish council, I don’t recall seeing it in the book, but he’s the sort who reads the Daily Mail. Mollison and his cronies look down on the council estate that is sandwiched between Pagford and Yarvil, that by a quirk of boundary lines falls in Pagford not Yarvil. They also look down on the drug rehabilitation clinic, that although run by Yarvil, is in a building they own. Barry Fairbrother’s death falls at a fortuitous time, as the council are due to vote on whether the boundary lines should be changed, so that the council estate comes under Yarvil’s domain and the drug clinic lease is about to expire. The council is split, so a newly vacant seat leaves it wide open to force the argument either way.
There’s a large cast of characters, which Rowling handles well, although you get the impression, particularly in the first half of the book, that she hates most of them. As well as Howard Mollison, there’s his wife Shirley, his son Miles and his unhappy, frustrated wife Samantha and then there’s Howard’s business partner Maureen, who’s mutton dressed like lamb. And then there’s the Walls, friends of the Fairbrothers, husband ‘Cubby’ is deputy head at the local secondary and suffers from crippling OCD, his wife Tessa is a support counsellor there and their son Fats, well, he’s a piece of work. Then there’s the Prices, their dad crooked and abusive of his sons. One of the Price boys being head over heels for Gaia, new to the area with her social worker mum who has uprooted them out of London for a new boyfriend, Gavin (business partner of Miles), who doesn’t want them there at all. And then there’s Parminder, the local GP and her family, one of her children being abused by Fats (of which she is unaware), Parminder is on the council and had been fighting alongside Barry Fairbrother to keep the council estate in Pagford. And then, finally, there’s Krystal Weedon and her family, they live in the aforementioned council estate, her mother a precariously recovering drug addict, her little brother under the watchful eye of social workers. Krystal had been championed by Barry Fairbrother, whereas many of the other Pagford residents look down on her and her family in disdain.
As well as the local politics, there’s plenty of family politics, as teenagers fight against their parents, teenagers fight with each other (I thought the school scenes were particularly good, schools are obviously a particular strong point with Rowling) and adults fight against each other. JK Rowling gets into the mindset of each character so well, even if they’re rather unpleasant (Pagford is the sort of place where the Dursleys would get on so well).
I think this book speaks so much about how fractured our society is now, particularly now as the economy sharpens the them (Pagford) against us (the council estate) attitude, how utterly entrenched some peoples views (on both sides) are. You could say that our society has always been fractured, that there has always been a ‘them and us’ and just as how Dickens documented it in the past, Rowling is documenting it now. I do truly believe that if someone wanted to read a work of fiction, in 100 years time, to find out about certain aspects and tensions of early 21st century British society, they would not go far wrong with reading The Casual Vacancy. This is a brave book from someone who turns out not just to be a keen observer of teenage wizards, but a keen observer of society as whole. JK Rowling didn’t need to write this book, in a lot of ways it’s very different from Harry Potter*, it’s very political for a start and lots of rude words and sex, it firmly puts her political views out there (not that they were that unknown), when she could have just sat back and enjoyed her millions but with political views like that, I don’t think she ever could have done that and besides, from reading her interviews I think she just likes writing too much.
Looking forward to a long, successful, diverse career from JK Rowling.
* In some ways The Casual Vacancy is quite similar to Harry Potter, in that both have themes of death, responsibility and the battle between two opposing diametrically opposite sides, one side very much all in it for themselves and the other more caring and all inclusive.