The Casual Vacancy
J. K. Rowling
Little, Brown £20
Church Times Bookshop £18
THE CASUAL VACANCY is written as a Middlemarch for the
21st century, offering a portrait of the politics, class tensions,
and dysfunctional relationships of a provincial English town.
The novel is set in Pagford, "a safe Conservative seat since the
1950s". The town has cobbled streets, and 1930s bungalows with
hanging baskets, a historic pub, and a Victorian church hall. But
J. K. Rowling lets us know at the outset that this "pretty" town
stands under "the dark skeleton of a ruined abbey": a symbol of the
geographical and social divide between "respectable" Pagford and
the underclass on the sink estate The Fields.
The dark mood of the novel is established in the first few
paragraphs, when a local councillor, Barry Fairbrother, drops dead
"in a pool of his own vomit" at that most respectable of civic
institutions - the golf club. Over 500 pages, the novel shows in
unforgiving detail the cruelty and violence of life in Pagford.
In Eliot's Middlemarch, the church is central to community life;
but Rowling shows the Pagford church to be as irrelevant as its
ruined abbey. The Old Vicarage is now occupied by a virtuous Sikh
family, who are the only characters to take religion seriously. At
Barry Fairbrother's funeral, and at a tragic funeral at the end of
the novel, the nameless Vicar is remote and disengaged, intoning
the solemn words of the service with a "sing-song delivery".
The question behind the novel is how the worlds of Pagford and
The Fields can be reconciled. The answer Rowling offers is bleak;
the story ends with a parody of the parable of the sheep and the
goats: a church funeral in which the mourners from Pagford sit in
the right-hand pews, and those from The Fields on the left.
In every way, Pagford is a far cry from Hogwarts. The
no-holds-barred depiction of sexual and domestic violence,
swearing, and drug addiction will come as a surprise to anyone who
is hoping for some of the charm of the Potter novels. In the world
of Potter, there is always the hope that evil will be defeated
through courage and the power of magic. But in Pagford magic is in
short supply, and the forces of destruction go unchecked. The
vacancy in the novel's title is surely a comment about an absence
of redemption, kindness, and meaning in contemporary Britain.
The Casual Vacancy is a moral fable, a fictional warning about
the tragic conditions in the real world. Like all fables, however,
the novel tends to deal in social types: snobs, addicts, bloated
Tories, token representatives of an ethnic minority, well-meaning
but powerless social workers. As a result, we are offered a cartoon
of Pagford, and some readers may find this frustrating. For
example, Rowling mocks the residents of Pagford for their
stereotypical views about council-estate "chavs", and then
proceeds to offer us just such a stereotype in her description of
violence and prostitution in The Fields.
Rowling is a good storyteller, and the novel is efficiently
plotted, but her writing is disappointing. For example, she does
not always trust the reader to fill out the narrative with hints
and suggestion, preferring to provide all the details herself.
When the social worker Kay Bawden approaches a client's house,
Rowling offers a full paragraph about the bin bags outside. We have
all seen rubbish left outside houses and are surely able to conjure
this scene for ourselves. This level of detail works well in the
Potter novels, where the reader wants to know the rules of
Quidditch. But in this novel, Rowling is writing about things that
we already know, and do not need to have described to us.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is author of The Devil's
Account: Philip Pullman and Christianity (DLT, 2004).