Blog #1

When ‘Casual Vacancy’ came out last year it was greeted by a torrent of wildly negative reviews. I was not particularly surprised by this; it is the way we always react to individuals who achieve beyond the expected norms. We may respect, but we certainly don’t like those who are more successful than us. I suspected that the book was probably no-where near as bad as reviewers suggested, but was in no particular hurry to read JK without wizards or monsters. The Potter books are excellent on plot but shabbily written. All in all, my expectations were fairly low.


In structure, at least, ‘Casual Vacancy’ is a rural equivalent of Lanchester’s ‘Capital’. Whereas Lanchester tried to define London in 2008 through a disparate cast of characters, so Rowling builds her picture of contemporary country life with a variety of families. Not disparate, however but interlocking in complex and profound ways.


Set in a smug, West country market town, the book charts the unexpected ramifications of the death of a decent man, Barry – a product of the local council estate who went to university and dedicated his life to enhancing the town and area by being a local councillor and volunteer for a range of good causes.


At first the large cast are separate entities. The most nauseating are the conservative Miles Mollison, his wife, son  and daughter in law, the most exquisitely drawn insufferable smug snobs I have read in a long time. Set against them are the dowdy school teachers, the Walls and the Jawanda’s the only ethnic diversity in the town. There is a local and violent man and his nurse wife, the social worker recently arrived from London and a few other residents. On the other side of the divide is the family of Krystal Weedon, the troublesome family from the troublesome council estate.


Unlike the Potter books, I thought the writing was spot on and very unflashy. The desperate paucity of language screams at you when we join Krystal’s family, while the desperate account of a young girl self-harming was the first convincing account I have read – and deeply moving as well. Where, perhaps, her Potter experience kicks in is that the children of the characters, all about 15, are just as well drawn as their parents. And the children are utterly independent of their parents. When Sukhuvinda upsets her mother by getting a Sunday job for her political enemy, it is absolutely clear that this relationship is entirely beyond her comprehension. The appalling ‘Fats’ is nauseatingly convincing (but never condemned by Rowling) and in the end is the centre of the inevitable tragedy.


There are no broomsticks or outlandish characters in ‘Casual Vacancy’; the monsters are familiar and may be our neighbours. At heart it is a deeply political book, a condemnation of that small ‘c’ conservativeness which she portrays so brilliantly. I found it an angry book as well, a scream of rage at the smug town as it watches the lower orders suffer.  Rowling will never win a Booker, she is far too readable for that, but make no mistake. This is a deeply grown up novel on grown up themes. An excellent, if uncomfortable read.

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Joe Finnegan writes:

On your blog review you said: "I found it an angry book as well, a scream of rage at the smug town as it watches the lower orders suffer"

which I agree with, but I would suggest it might be a bit one-sided.  She certainly lambasts the selfish smug grouping in the village but her picture or the "lower orders" is also somewhat despairing.


The working class printer father of Andrew Price indulges in a bit of petty crime and is a violent bully of his own family.  Meanwhile the tragic Krystle's single parent is a useless mother with a sentimental urge to stop her kids being taken away by social services but actually unable to offer the slightest bit of real loving care to them.  The social workers do their best to improve her life and take some responsibility but she won't make any effort to help herself, eg when asked to make sure her children attend school.  And when the services try to help her off drugs, she readily relapses the moment her wastrel boyfriend turns up on her doorstep.


I think Rowling's anger is with failings on both sides.




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