Tonight sees the first part of the adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy being screened on BBC One here in the UK, admittedly I had no idea that it had been adapted till I saw the new edition of the book in the supermarket, so I thought it was about time I gave it a whirl. I am a fan of Rowling’s writing, I loved the Harry Potter books and indeed for the last three was one of the people who went and queued for a midnight release. Yet the hype and buzz around Rowling’s first ‘proper book for grown ups’ when it came out proved too much for me, even though it’s about a small British town which is a setting I love with all that curtain twitching. So I set it aside for when the time was right, which seemed like now as I needed to read it before I watched it on the telly, and so I started.
As you would expect from a Rowling novel, The Casual Vacancy has a huge cast of characters and also a rather wide scope, even if only set in the small town of Pagford. As the novel opens Councillor Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly, leaving the casual vacancy of the title. If you are like me and not really up on government politics let alone local ones (which as I work for an offshoot of the council is ironic, I do get passionate around general election time so watch out this summer) then this will mean nothing to you either, yet it is indeed a true thing.
‘We’ve got a…?’ asked Maureen, frightened that she might have missed something crucial.
‘Casual vacancy,’ repeated Howard. ‘What you call it when a council seat becomes vacant through a death. Proper term,’ he said pedagogically.
Here too you might also think ‘oh no this sounds really, really dull and dreary why would I want to read about local politics?’ as I did, yet this is just really the background noise as at the centre stage are the lives of those who might stand to take up Barry Fairbrother’s place, as well as those he leaves behind on a personal level after his death. It is here behind closed doors, where people’s secrets lie, where the action and heart of the novel are. It is also where Rowling creates a wonderfully intricate and darkly funny series of plots and twists with the interlinking characters that live behind them.
First are the Mollinsons. Howard Mollinson is already on the council and, along with his wife Shirley, desperately want their son Miles to take over as the new councillor. This adding to Howard’s plan to make sure The Fields, a council estate that houses a drug clinic, fall under the council of the nearby city of Yarvil and becomes their responsibility – a major part of the book, more on soon. The only person who doesn’t seem keen in Miles’ wonderfully awful, miserable and bitter wife Samantha, who would rather just concentrate on making her lingerie shop more of a success before coming home and getting drunk.
Second up is Dr. Parminder Jarwanda, who was Barry’s right hand woman, and is seen as one of the most respectable prospects both with her job and her picture perfect family, of course the perfect picture often has cracks within it. Third up is Colin “Cubby” Wall a local Deputy Head Teacher who some would say was rather obsessed with Barry Fairbrother; he is also obsessed with not doing something else. Fourthly and finally is the rather left field option that is Simon Price, a man who thinks he is of the people, yet we soon learn is a horrendous tyrant and bully to his family.
All these people want to go for a respected role and yet, as you will have guessed, they all hide secrets, secrets which soon start to appear on the Pagford community website written by “The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother” but who is this ghost and why are they spreading such poisonous messages exposing the flaws in the candidates. Could there be some undercover vigilante’s in the midst of the town and what are their motives?
As I mentioned the novel also deals with those who Barry left behind. There is his wife Mary, his best friend Gavin (who doesn’t quite realise it till he has died) and also teenager Krystal Weedon. Krystal may initially be a surprise link, yet she lives on The Fields, where we discover Barry came from hence his passion for it, and who he took under his wing. Krystal is a girl living with a hard life trying to look after her little brother when her mother falls off the wagon and either gets drunk or finds the funds, or prostitutes herself, for a fix of heroin. Krystal is also the link of sorts between all the other characters, she plays on a team (which Barry coached) with Sukhvinder Jawanda and is dating Colin Walls son, Fats. Are you still with me? Good. She is really Rowling’s heroine of the piece, yet I also found that she was the character that Rowling lets down the most in the end…
Before I get onto that, I want to share with you what I loved about The Casual Vacancy, as there is a lot to love. Most importantly, I really, really love Rowling’s writing. I love the way she creates Pagford so completely in your head. You see the streets that these people walk down, you watch the curtains twitch and you go and have coffee and gossip with them in the shops. Her characters are also wonderfully drawn; vivid and fully formed they inhabit your head as they inhabit the town. I also loved the way that Rowling uses a wicked sense of humour to create them and depict their physicality and situations, often in a quite upfront and giggle inducing way. No we are not in the land of Harry Potter anymore…
Though Pagford’s delicatessen would not open until nine thirty, Howard Mollison had arrived early. He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of a stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people instantly thought 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.
It was for all these reasons that I raced through the first two thirds of the book. Then I started to struggle. It is not that the book is too long, I just felt it and Rowling lose their way and get too caught up in the social mores and trying to piss Daily Mail readers off. You see whilst all the secrets and themes of the novel (the self harm, the depression, the domestic violence, racism, homophobia, assumptions about class) initially are the fire in the belly of The Casual Vacancy they also start to weigh it down too much.
There is the fact that to be honest there are no redeeming features in any of the characters, apart from Barry’s widow Mary, each one is really a bit of a shit in one way or another. Whilst this may be true of some villages and towns in the country a novel needs some form of redemption somewhere. Even the younger generation in the novel, who I should say Rowling writes the best, are actually little sods in some ways with the exception of Sukhvinder. Yes, even Krystal, the girl who Rowling uses to depict the working class and poor that she came from, soon gets motives of survival that I found quite insulting to that class.
Then Rowling did two things, one which I saw coming and didn’t think she would do as it seemed to obvious and one which I didn’t see coming and was enraged by, which for me both let all those people down she clearly wanted to highlight and make us feel for AND made the book so utterly bleak, grim and depressing I threw the paperback I anally bought so not to dent my hardback in my work bag on the commute across the room in anger and frustration – but not in the way I think Rowling wanted me too. There was just no need and no redemption, and this is from someone who likes books that are dark. I sulked, epically. I went from cackling to cursing.
Now I have had some time away from The Casual Vacancy I still feel very conflicted about it and I think I probably will remain so. On the one hand it is a tale about the lengths people will go for power. It is also a darkly funny novel about a fantastic, if unlikeable (which doesn’t put me off a book to clarify) bunch of characters and what they try to hide from each other. It is also about the responsibility of those privileged enough to get the power, especially in acting for those who may never get their voices heard let alone the power to make decisions in society. The thing is for me in the last sixty pages Rowling goes from vocalising those voices to inevitably letting them down, well in the opinion of this reader anyway.
I don’t think I am alone in this having mentioned the book on twitter a few times and indeed seeing that the people behind the BBC’s adaption have apparently changed the ending as they felt it was too grim. I still love Rowling’s writing, I am still going to read the Robert Galbraith crime novels, I just wish she had carried on highlighting the plight of a part of society without the extremity which then backfired, I thought. I will stop now or I will get cross again. Who else has read The Casual Vacancy and what did you make of it? Who else is going to be tuning into the mini-series?