THE CASUAL VACANCY by J.K. Rowling
Drug addiction, sex, rape, power, corruption and lies. This ‘adult’ novel seems a long way from the world of Hogwarts.
On the surface Pagford is a safe and sedate town; a place where buses “trundle” and where the delicatessen is “run with the ritual and regularity of a temple”.
However, beneath this veneer of respectability lies a festering, dog eat dog world of spiteful social climbers. Rowling revels in her mockery of the airs and graces, petty rivalries and back-stabbing. At the same time she shows a compassion for underdogs and contempt for bullies and braggarts.
As a biting satire of middle class aspirations it is often reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s 1977 stage play ‘Abigail’s Party‘.
This fictional West Country town symbolises a Daily Mail culture of smug NIMBY conservatism. Its self-centred “moral radiance” contrasts with the nearby town of Yarvil where the children are portrayed as “sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring”.
The newly built Fields housing estate epitomizes the decline of ‘civilised’ values and Pagford’s town councillors are determined to redraw its boundary lines to exclude this threat.
Practically the only adult male deserving of respect and admiration dies in the first chapter. Barry Fairbrother was a sociable, non-racist, good-humoured man with a “boundless generosity of spirit”. His untimely demise causes the casual vacancy of the title – an empty post on the local council that his friends and foes strive to fill.
Rowling’s sympathies lie mainly with the local teenagers (especially the girls) who struggle to contend with growing pains and incompetent parenting. Sukhvinder, the daughter of Pakistani doctors, is a self-harming underachiever who ultimately becomes the hero of the hour.
The novel is an effective page turner and Rowling is an accomplished storyteller, However, in her eagerness to show that all the ‘villains’ (and some of the victims) get their comeuppance she engineers a heavily contrived and overloaded finale.
In this way, the novel reads as an elaborate fable of good vs evil, and right vs wrong. In its depiction of these contrasts it is, despite the adult setting, not so dissimilar to the simplified morality of children’s fiction.