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On England and its rubbish condition

23 November 2012

Here, Hugh-Rayment Pickard finds, a moral fable is cartoon-like


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).

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