Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
It was with curiosity that I approached J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults Casual Vacancy. The first three Harry Potter books were captivating and very enjoyable and the next 4 were increasingly dark but still compelling reading. Casual Vacancy opens with a cast of unlikable, physically and intellectually unattractive middle aged characters embroiled in uninteresting village politics and grudges. The book is set in the pretty fictional West Country town of Pagford, England, with a cobbled town square and a ruined abbey overlooking the town. The tale involves a town being ripped apart by a parish council election. Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, and the vacancy for his seat becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has seen, with
rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with pupils
Three parents of 16 year old students decide to run for election for Barry’s seat. However, soon two of the candidates and two councilors find their darkest secrets revealed on the Parish Council online forum, ruining their campaign, damaging careers, and leaving the council and their families in turmoil.
The Casual Vacancy covers a range of issues, including rape, racism, drug addiction, suicide, prostitution, pornography, domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, self-harm, neglect, support services, infidelity, and theft. It lacks the Harry Potter books’ warmth and charm; all the characters are fairly horrible, suicidally miserable, misfits, or dead. It is the teenage characters that held the most interest for me and it’s obvious that Rowling wanted to distance herself from Harry Potter by making her teenage characters sexually active, foul mouthed, and drug users.
Stuart (Fats) Wall reminded me of Henry in The Secret History and Adrian in The Sense of an Ending with is anti establishment approach to life, however his bullying, air of superiority, reckless pursuit of ‘authenticity’, and lack of empathy were deeply unsettling.
The character Sukhvinder was straight out of the teenage stereotype of the awkward teenage girl who is bullied relentlessly and turns to self harm. Rowling made use of Facebook bullying to show that she is up to date with teens. The scene with self harm was very difficult to read.
The character Krystal (daughter of crack addict mother who prostitutes herself to buy drugs and has already had 2 children taken off her) is captivating. She is devoted to her younger brother and plays the role of primary carer even though it means missing school and she’s only 16, yet she is aggressive, foul mouthed, and volatile.
Spoiler Alert: I feel like Rowling created Stuart Wall as an anti-hero to distance herself forever from Harry Potter. She set Stuart up as a sociopath headed for a big fall and then brought him crashing down. What disappoints me is that to bring about Stuart’s fall she killed off Krystal and her little brother. I realise that she was seeking symmetry in beginning and ending the book with death but I felt like it was unnecessary to kill these two innocents.
Rowling focuses 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 without growing wise, and who wear prosperity like an ill-fitting suit. J.K. Rowling has commented on her economic situation before the success of Harry Potter as being “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless” and said that this was why she was drawn to writing about poverty:
How many of us are able to expand our minds beyond our own personal experience? So many people, certainly people who sit around the cabinet table, say, ‘Well, it worked for me’ or, ‘This is how my father managed it’ – these trite catchphrases – and the idea that other people might have had such a different life experience that their choices and beliefs and behaviours would be completely different from your own seems to escape a lot of otherwise intelligent people. The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash, like porridge. The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people.
– J. K. Rowling, The Guardian, 2012
If I wasn’t reading it for book group I may not have persevered with it. As with Tim Winton books I wondered where the empathetic, engaged middle aged characters are and why do some authors prefer to write about middle age as a denouement between the hope and joy of early adulthood and the infirmity of old age; a time to reflect on what went wrong rather than building, growing, learning and being grateful every day for the new opportunities offered. It’s true that I’m only 37 and my children are still young so perhaps my viewpoint is naive and I too will become jaded with time. Or perhaps writers have realised that misery sells books! As usual I made the mistake of reading the end of the book on the bus and had to stifle tears as my throat swelled with grief. In retrospect I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone who can push through the pettiness of small town life.