“The Casual Vacancy” is instantly notorious because it’s J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. It comes with a prominent black “X” on the cover, fair warning that between these covers you’ll find a subject that’s TABOO in America.
The subject is class warfare and classism. Ms. Rowling’s story takes place in England, and you have to remember that the British and Europeans are not as squeamish about class issues as we Americans. Until recently, we’ve been in full denial.
(If you’d like to read my preview of Casual Vacancy before you start the review, see J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy — Prices Slashed.)
Ms. Rowling takes the micro approach to class warfare, focusing on the lives, relationships, and foibles of the individual men, women and children of one small town in England. The macro alternative would be a “God’s-eye view,” examining society from a distance. Rowling understands that you need to get up close and personal to understand classism and class warfare.
In the first 100 pages of Casual Vacancy, Rowling introduces an average of one new character every two pages.
She is able to add characters quickly because the cast includes nine couples (18 peeps) and 16 teenagers, who of course travel in groups. Although the town’s society is clearly based on couples — and I suspect that each couple hides its own dark secrets — the first 100 pages also introduce seven individual characters of significance, nine miscellaneous bit players (mostly teachers) and lastly, one small child. Fifty-one peeps in 100 pages!
Barry Fairbrother is in some ways the most important character of all. Ms. Rowling kills him off on the third page, and leaves him “lying motionless and unresponsive on the ground in a pool of his own vomit.” Be warned that this story is going to get messy. J.K. Rowling is not squeamish about the details.
You almost need a scorecard to keep track of the players, and which side of the class and political divide they’re on. And then there’s the houses! The houses have names, like Hilltop House and Evertree Crescent, The Old Vicarage, and Sweetlove House.
You definitely need to understand the geography. Pagford is an idyllic small town. Yarvil is the nearby big city. The Fields, a slum of concrete and steel houses, provides misery, tension, and conflict. As Ms. Rowling says, it’s “necessary to comprehend the precise depth of Pagford’s dislike and mistrust of the city of Yarvil.”
“Their attitude was symbolized by the high hill, topped by Pargetter Abbey, which blocked Yarvil from Pagford’s sight, and allowed the townspeople the happy illusion that the city was many miles further away than it truly was.”
The many characters — the individuals and couples of Pagford — are organized into institutions, starting with the Pagford Parish Council and its nemesis, the Yarvil District Council. More important in the daily lives of the community are the schools, public and private.
At the snobbish St. Thomas’s Church of England Primary School, the privileged children of Pagford must sometimes sit next to children from the Fields, whom the townspeople characterize as “the offspring of scroungers, addicts and mothers whose children had all been fathered by different men.”
Older students are bused to Winterdown Comprehensive in Yarvil. Parents who want to shield their daughters from the rude, crude teenagers at Winterdown send their girls to St. Anne’s private school. The Winterdown girls crew team has some significance, as does the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, which is the symbolic center of political controversy.
The Casual Vacancy is certainly about class warfare. Here’s how delicatessen owner Howard Mollison, chair of the Pagford Parish Council, sees the world:
“For him, the town was an ideal, a way of being; a micro-civilization that stood firmly against a national decline.”
But Casual Vacancy goes deeper than politics and sociology. J.K. Rowling wants us to know the people of Pagford and the Fields as individuals, struggling daily with their demons, assigned to a particular station in life, and caught in the sticky spiderweb of community. She describes one hapless character as follows:
“Colin had a habit of making sweeping judgments based on first impressions, on single actions. He never seemed to grasp the immense mutability of human nature, nor to appreciate that behind every nondescript face lay a wild and unique hinterland like his own.”
All this in the first 150 pages of the 503-page novel. Much, much more to come about the “mutability of human nature,” I expect.
— John Hayden
- JK Rowling: Casual Vacancy tops fiction charts (telegraph.co.uk)
- “Casual Vacancy” Note No. 1 (johnhaydeninmd.com)
- ‘The Casual Vacancy Tops ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on Bestsellers List; J.K. Rowling’s New Book Still Thriving [REVIEWS] (booksnreview.com)