The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling, Little, Brown, RRP£20/$35, 503 pages
Small-town life in the 21st century exists in a hinterland between modernity (everyone has access to social media and a good cappuccino) and a more traditional England, what Orwell described as the world of “old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of an autumn morning”. This is the idyll that Harry Potter’s creator JK Rowling scathingly dissects in The Casual Vacancy, her first book for adults.
The result is an old-fashioned novel, a thoughtful, angry and densely plotted story in the 19th-century tradition. Pagford, Rowling’s invented West Country town, is small but its class and racial divisions run deep.
The book has already been dubbed “Mugglemarch” and that’s no insult. Rowling, presumably drawing on her experience of creating hordes of vivid secondary characters for the seven Harry Potter books (1997-2007), brings Pagford’s inhabitants to life and makes each of them distinct. By page 13 we’ve already met 12 of the 20 main characters, including (briefly) Barry Fairbrother, the dead man who provides the moral heart of the narrative.
Despite the character pile-up, there is no need to keep flicking back for reminders of who’s who. Everyone is described minutely, with unflinching attention to physical appearance (“Andrew’s acne stood out, livid and shiny, from his empurpling cheek ...”) and to their interior lives, their neuroses, and, most importantly, secrets: “Things denied, things untold, things hidden and disguised.”
Rowling is helped in her ambitious project by including the town of Pagford as a character, its topography mapped in prose: the central square where adults work and gossip, the posh houses of Church Row and the gentrifying Victorian terraces. There is also a place apart: the Fields, a sink estate on the outskirts of the neighbouring town, Yarvil. Significantly for the plot, children from the Fields are entitled to attend Pagford’s middle-class primary school, with its “coveted blue-and-white uniform”, rather than the “plain-clothes primary school” on a neighbouring estate.
The Fields is home to Krystal Weedon, “byword and dirty joke”, 16-year-old daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute, who moves between Rowling’s parallel adults’ and teenagers’ narratives. At the other end of the social scale is Howard Mollison, “an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four” who chairs the parish council. “A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.” There is nothing genteel about the way Rowling writes for adults.
Howard’s mission is to fill “the casual vacancy” – the seat on the town’s governing council left empty by Barry’s death – with his son. Howard and his allies want to generate enough support to offload on to Yarvil council all responsibility for the Fields and its undesirable residents.
These are the mechanics on which the plot rests but the enjoyment is all in the character detail and zippy dialogue, as Rowling plays out class and political tensions, and exposes the thinly disguised racism towards the town’s GP, Mollison’s fellow councillor Parminder Jawala.
Rowling is, unsurprisingly, particularly good when she writes about teenagers. It is their actions – their obsessions with computers and sex – that drive events much faster than the adults can comprehend. All the plotlines collide and move towards a foreshadowed, tragic conclusion.
It’s gripping, but Rowling has too much material: The Casual Vacancy runs to more than 500 pages and it’s just too long, which is probably a reflection of the author’s superstar status. The book would benefit from pruning: sometimes the characters’ back stories, for instance, run on in parentheses lasting for two pages.
Beneath the narrative layers there is anger and grief. Everyone and everything is connected in some way to the dead man. Barry’s emails, for example: “rapid scribbles, the pixels arranged by fingers henceforth forever still, [which] acquired the macabre aspect of husks”. His widow, Mary, finds “Every hour that passed added to her grief, because it bore her further away from the living man ...” There is more grief at the end – muted grief for lost potential, and an angrier message: that many lives are blighted because no one will take responsibility for helping fellow citizens. The “Big Society” has a long way to go in Pagford.
It is odd to read a book about small-town life written by a woman so famous that she can never again enjoy being a big player in a small community. Yet, as an outsider, Rowling has perhaps more right to fictionalise a way of life she can’t have (and, for her millions of readers outside Britain, Pagford will be as alien as Hogwarts). In this sense, The Casual Vacancy is also an elegy for Rowling’s ordinary life. As a London-bred teenager, temporarily uprooted to Pagford, says: “There was a prettiness about Pagford that, now she knew she was leaving, she thought she might quite miss ...”