THE CASUAL VACANCYJ.K. Rowling,Hachette, $39.99
No book of adult fiction has ever been anticipated like this 500-page depiction of provincial English life by the author of the Harry Potter books. On September 27 at 5pm, The Casual Vacancy went on sale after an absolute embargo, as if we were all kids in wizard outfits, hungry for a magical fix.
Magic there is not. This is a remorselessly gritty and mundane book, a sustained exercise in what the author clearly conceives as the social-realist mode. It is structured around two funerals and a suicide and includes the piteous death of a child. It is centrally concerned with a council election and the consequences of malicious internet postings.
To an all but overwhelming degree, Joanne Rowling, who is wealthier than the Queen, focuses here on the horrors of life in the underclass, the turbulence and heartbreak of being a teenager, and the smugness and shallowness of lower-middle-class Brits who have grown fat and smug without getting much in the way of wisdom or virtue, and who wear prosperity like an ill-fitting suit.
The Casual Vacancy is a page turner in the most elementary way. It throbs with a consistent melodramatic urgency as Rowling scrutinises the unlovely surface of a small West Country town’s moral tics and intuits all sorts of pettinesses and meannesses under the surface. It is all executed with a monumental earnestness in a somewhat plodding, sometimes overwritten or inept style, which never gets in the way of Rowling’s remorseless dedication to the curve of her story.
The Casual Vacancy is never very subtle – it is forever dog-paddling in the depths of the horrors the author chooses to delineate – but it does have a sort of naive grandeur as the most successful writer alive tries to do honour to the rawness of life she must have glimpsed, pre-Harry Potter, of working people and those who will never work doing it hard.
The upshot is a book that is true to the side of Rowling that has always revered Jessica, the left-wing Mitford. It’s a bit like Cranford without the pleasures of small-town life; a bit like Coronation Street without the empathy; a bit like Shameless without the laughs.
But The Casual Vacancy is also a book that has the kind of ”heart” that flitters around the corners and borders of the Harry Potter books. What it singularly lacks is the charm that comes with academic gowns and wands. There is nothing here of the Hogwarts world’s effortless transposition of a public-school milieu writ magical and mysterious, or masters of arts black and white who could mix it in the mightiest common rooms of popular fiction – characters who are remote cousins of le Carre’s great game players, who owe their allegorical names (Dumbledore, Snape) to Mervyn Peake and Dickens, and who, as casters of the spells of popular fiction, might take tea with Miss Marple and Poirot.
Harry Potter was a brilliant fusion of two formulas: the school story and magic (which is also the key to its appeal to children of every age). The Casual Vacancy is formulaic in technique and style, though Rowling pushes like crazy – and in the face of every obstacle – to tell it like it is, to give us the harsh and horrifying image of the faces that become grotesque and piglike when they are seen in the mirror of the novel that reflects ”life”.
There’s no enchantment and not much charm, but all the sympathy, and most of the energy, is in the depiction of the kids, so The Casual Vacancy is a bit like a super-size young-adult novel, which the author wants to double as a comprehensive image of British life. It’s nothing like it, but it does have its compensating vigours.
A decent man, devoted to fixing things in a depressed area, dies, leaving a spot on the council. The town is dominated by a gross (in every sense) delicatessen owner and by his rather ferrety lawyer son, who wants the vacant council position. They, in turn, have rather nasty wives. The junior one lusts for the big smoke of London and rock concerts. Mrs Delicatessen gets a nasty shock about the reality of her long, sexless marriage. In the other corner, we have a hopeless junkie, her rough teenage daughter and neglected toddler son. Between these two extremes, there’s a school teacher afflicted by compulsive imaginary guilts, his social-worker wife and alienated, cold-hearted son. The son’s best mate is a somewhat softer boy who has a thug of a dad who rages and punches and is a crim to boot. The boy also has the hots for a dazzlingly beautiful girl who has come from London. Then there’s an Indian doctor and her daughter, who is gay and hurts herself but who comes good in the novel’s dramatic denouement.
The Casual Vacancy is centrally concerned with the way internet whisperings convulse a small community that is not up to much more than maintaining its complacencies (in the case of the middle-class respectables) or just – desperately – getting by (in the case of the feral down-and-outers). Between the two groups are the kids who strive and fall and weep (some of them) for the darkness of their own hearts.
The Casual Vacancy is, in one way, a very conventional book, playing on the prototypes of popular fiction. In another way, it is a cry against the horrors of conventional life. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a work of art and it is a very odd book to come from the pen of a great and fabled entertainer. But, despite stretches of cliche and failures of compassion (and dollops of sentimentality by way of a corollary), it does have a propulsion and an ability to hook the reader in the face of an attempted novelistic vision of life that’s pretty rough and tough.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.