Like millions of others I ploughed through the Harry Potter books when they came out. Over the last couple of years I’ve been re-reading them more slowly with OMB (and I mean SLOOOOWLY – it took us the best part of six months to get through The Order of the Phoenix and I’m resisting OMB’s requests to move on to the next one until we’ve read some other books). At the first time of reading my general feeling was that the stories were fun, albeit basically a rehash of the genre of boarding school stories (Quidditch instead of hockey/lacrosse/football, Runes instead of Latin, and so on). On re-reading, they seem a lot more clunkily written than I remembered. Partly this is because they have clearly not been written to be read out – there are some very ungainly long sentences. Partly it is because of the rather limited range of vocabulary even for a children’s book – how many times each book does Harry respond “dully”? OK, that might be a reasonable reflection of how surly teenagers interact with the world, but it becomes a little dull reading the same adverb over and over! Most of all I think it is because I’d sort of missed how unlikeable Harry himself often is. Although that might be an unintended strength of the books in that it has made Snape less of a comedy semi-villain when you can see that he has ample reasons for disliking Harry both because of his father and because of what he is actually like. Anyway, none of this has stopped the books being immensely successful and popular, not least with OMB. But, as usual, I digress, this is after all meant to be about The Casual Vacancy.
– OMB dressed up as Harry Potter for World Book Day (broomstick upside down to stop Fluffy trying to eat it, again)
The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s first novel for an adult readership (leaving aside her pseudonymous foray into crime fiction). I came to it with relatively low expectations, not only because the writing in the Harry Potter books has started to grate but also because of its subject matter. The main plot of the book centres on a Parish Council by-election occasioned by the sudden and early death of a councillor in a small rural town, Barry Fairbrother. Just as Rowling has managed to be irritating when talking about the Potter books (the unnecessary revelation that Dumbledore was gay, the recent public musing about whether Harry should have married Hermione) she has also been irritatingly outspoken politically. So, I had some sense of trepidation that the book could end up being a shrill polemic.
However, I was pleased to find that the book was both far better written and more sensitively nuanced than I was expecting. One of the good things about the Potter stories is the way in which the characters are drawn (even if “dully” at times!) and this comes through in the very large cast of The Casual Vacancy. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who had spent a long time immersed in the fictional lives of children, the teenage characters are particularly well portrayed. Stuart “Fats” Wall has been given a good mix of certainty and cynicism which point to how Harry could have been written and which ring true. Some of the other characters are grotesques, in particular, the obese, pompous and repugnant Howard Mollison and his smug son, but believable ones. And the portrayal of the Weedon family and their interactions with social services manages to avoid unnecessary mawkishness while bringing up an unexpected but believable childish sentimentality from the most debauched and debased. Those social services and other “do-gooders” are also drawn well, they aren’t described as heroes and saviours but also seen as having limited ability (and in some cases, desire) to do well by people and it is clearly recognised that the default position of the people they are meant to be helping is distrust and fear.
The plot of the book is as convoluted as you would expect (and rattles along), but the striking difference between it and the Potter books is that it is much more ambiguous about where it is going and what we should make of where it ends. It ends with disaster for several families and yet also optimism for some of them while giving a sense that nothing very much ultimately changed in the town. There is perhaps some parallel to the epilogue to the Harry Potter stories, but here, instead of deflating what came before (SPOILER – “what, Harry becomes a middle aged civil servant with a wife and kids, as do all his friends with whom he spent his teenage years fighting the most evil wizards ever?”) it shows how resilient and resistant the world can be to change even if change is really needed. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is left up to the reader to decide – as a reader you really want it to work out for some of the characters and for others to be roundly defeated, but you also know when things don’t turn out that way that if they had the book would have been unbelievable. It leaves you with the question of how might things be changed and the knowledge that that is a question with no easy answer.