J.K. Rowling dissects small-town life in new novel

J.K. Rowling holds nothing back in her first adult novel, a searing study of small-town life, writes James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 2:23pm

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown   

In case you haven't heard, The Casual Vacancy is the first novel for adults by J.K. Rowling. Who is best known for writing a series of novels 

starring a teenage wizard called Harry Potter. In case you haven't heard. Nor does it take very long in this relatively lengthy novel (503 pages) to realise we aren't at Hogwarts anymore.

Set in a small fictional English town called Pagford, Rowling tackles grown-up themes in grown-up language. We start with a death (Barry Fairweather collapses, vomits and dies of an aneurysm), proceed through the cold calculations of local politics, and along the way experience heroin addiction, racism, internet porn, domestic abuse, rape, child molestation charges, self-harm, burglary and drug dealing. There's not much magic, but a great deal about rowing - of both the argumentative and sculling variety.

What is arguably most striking in Rowling's novel is her fondness for swearing. Having spotted the first "f***" on page 14 ("I'm not going to fund the little f*****'s filthy habit" - the filthy habit being smoking), I tried to keep a J.K. curse box, only to give up when confronted by the sheer virtuosity of her profanity. F*** leads quickly to s*** and, after a brief hiatus (filled with plentiful f***, s*** b***** and p****), to c***. Wash your mouth out Joanne Rowling.

If nothing else, this adeptness with Anglo-Saxon vulgarity makes The Casual Vacancy a lively read. Rowling is good at ventriloquising a range of English vernacular - from deceptive middle-class courtesy to the glottal-stopped grunts of those neglected by Britain's education system. Here is Terri, an emaciated junkie who shuttles between relapse and brief periods of recovery: "Lying was the only way Terri knew to meet her many accusers. Yeah, all righ', go on, then, give it 'ere, and then, No, I never, no I ain, I never f*****' did …"

As this suggests, Rowling's loose, baggy story is partly about the English class divide. Despite its aspirations to picturesque perfection, Pagford has been cruelly saddled with "the Fields", a slum-like suburb encroaching from the larger neighbouring town of Yarvil. The ensuing culture clash is played out in every area of Pagford communal life: at school, the doctor's, the shops, the school rowing team, Barry's funeral and, most centrally, the local parish council. Barry's death leaves an empty seat (the titular "casual vacancy") which opposing halves of a stark political divide want to fill.

On the right wing are the Mollisons, proud Pagfordians who distrust everyone from the Fields, and almost anyone not from the town: Queen Elizabeth II would be a rare exception. The patriarch is Howard, the obese owner of the local delicatessen, who prides himself on bringing culinary sophistication to his hometown. His wife, Shirley, is a snob who worships their son, Miles, but patronises his wife, Samantha, whose ownership of a bra shop in Yarvil offends her mother-in-law in triplicate: women shouldn't work, sell underwear or leave Pagford.

On the left are the Walls, Colin and Tessa, teachers at the local school, where their son "Fats" is something of a hero and best friend to Andrew Price (whose dad refuses to buy him cigarettes). Parminder Jawanda is the local doctor and a close confidant of the liberal Barry.

In between are a host of wild cards: Barry's best friend, Gavin, is a lawyer whose relationship with Kay is going nowhere - although Kay has recklessly shifted her daughter and career in social work from London to be with him. The Prices are arguably the most dysfunctional of Pagford's residents: nasty Simon brutalises his wife and two sons.

Indeed, The Casual Vacancy's defining emotion is rage, most poignantly between helpless, angry children and frustrated, furious parents. The plot is driven by three children posting anonymous slander about a mother or father on Pagford's website. Andrew goes first, then Parminder's ugly duckling daughter, Sukhvinder, who is bullied by Fats and despised by her over-achieving mother. Finally, there is Fats himself, whose effortless cool impresses his peers but drives his father to distraction. It says something about Rowling's jaded portrayal of parenthood that none of the slandered victims suspect their own child.

The website neatly locates Pagford as a place of surface propriety and manifold secrets. Rowling's most striking literary innovation is the parentheses, which she uses as a private space for characters to offer asides on their pasts, their desires and their suppressed memories. This is how we learn about Nikki Weedon's buried feelings about her recently deceased mother, about the true nature of Parminder's devotion to Barry or Andrew's passion for Kay's daughter, Gaia. Yet sooner or later, what is arcane and mysterious will out. It is interesting how many of the characters suffer from skin complaints - acne, rashes, blushes - as if buried feelings will express themselves eventually.

So, the big question: does Rowling succeed? To some extent, this depends on your own idea of Rowling and of literary success. Not being especially familiar with Harry Potter, I was pleasantly surprised by the scale of her narrative ambition, her ear for dialogue and, perhaps unsurprisingly, her convincing portrayal of teenagers, both male and female. The disarming scenes in which Andrew witnesses the rage of his father compare not unfavourably to that masterpiece of paternalistic violence, Edward Murdstone in David Copperfield. The promiscuous, mercurial and emotionally volatile Krystal Weedon is both sympathetic and unsentimental: one minute she cares tenderly for her neglected brother, Robbie; the next she turns for no apparent reason on Sukhvinder, calling her a "Paki".

There are weaknesses. While Rowling writes vividly about middle-aged parents and teenage children, there is a marked dearth of anyone over 75 or between the ages of 18 and 35. Nor is The Casual Vacancy blessed with a sense of humour: Fats' sardonic one-liners aside, you won't laugh much.

Moreover, a novel about parochialism can't help but feel, well, parochial. Whether the world is ready for Rowling's homage to Anthony Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, dissecting the minutiae of village gossip, local politics and secondary school drama remains to be seen. Then again, it's a sad lookout for literature if it takes magic and Quidditch to legitimise all of the above rather than a writer's prose and a reader's imaginative sympathy.

Most grievously perhaps is the sneaking suspicion that Rowling's desire to show the bad as well as the good in her rounded characters has led her close to occasional sneering: at the ludicrously vulgar Samantha, or the frankly hideous Nikki. Indeed, few of the characters are straightforwardly likeable: the genial Gavin is a milksop; the amusing Fats close to sociopathic at times.

Then again, human beings rarely are either straightforward or straightforwardly likeable. As Tessa Wall ponders critically in relation to her husband: "He never seemed to grasp the immense immutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own."

That Rowling has tried so hard to capture this immense immutability and so many unique hinterlands is to her credit. The Casual Vacancy will lose her readers (not hard when you have sold half a billion books). But it deserves to win over others.

Anything but casual or vacant, the novel presents J.K. Rowling as a talented, even courageous writer, and an acute observer of contemporary life.

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