The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Last week, on a flight from Perth to Melbourne, I began reading The Casual Vacancy, a novel that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelves since I bought it a several years casual-vacancy-book coverago. I’d opened it a few times but then closed it and put it back on the shelf, so now I hoped that the three-and-a-half-hour flight might force me to get to grips with it. I’ll admit that as the seat-belt sign went off I wished I’d chosen something else for the journey, but ten minutes later I was wishing I’d started it sooner. The novel is set in the first decade of the 21st century but I was captivated by the recognition of so much that was familiar to me from living in a village near a small town in England from the 1950s to the eighties.   Initially the petty jealousies, snobbery and small mindedness alongside the sense of community, social responsibility and genuine good will seduced me, until I realised I was being drawn into something much darker.

The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy mix of the social paralysis of a Barbara Pym novel and a particularly bizarre episode of Midsomer Murders, where gruesome crimes, malicious plots, feuds and a brutal disregard for others pervades council meetings, sunny flower shows, refined afternoon teas and, of course, evenings in the local pub.

Rowling is the hugely successful author of the Harry Potter books, which have imbued a whole generation of children with a love of reading and brought pleasure to millions of adults. But while this, her first novel for adults, captures many of the aspects of the Potter books: the large cast of characters, the multiple plots which interlock, the breathtaking power of evil, it lacks the warmth, charm and humour of her earlier works. Unsurprising really as this was never touted as a book for children or teenagers, or even as a transition for younger fans pledging loyalty to a loved author. The Casual Vacancy is rich in the everyday ignorance, jealousy, small mindedness, selfishness and cruelty that can thrive within a small community riven with issues of class, and driven by ambition, avarice and the desire for self-aggrandisement. This is no Harry Potter, nor is there a canny Inspector Barnaby to deliver a satisfactory ending to restore rural harmony. Indeed the ending is somewhat melodramatic – macabre even. No winding up at the end of the day with a swift half, or a nice cup of tea.

This is Rowling’s version of the ‘state of England novel’ which goes back to Dickens and Mrs Gaskell, and more recently Blake Morrison’s South of the River, and John Lanchester’s Capital. The Casual Vacancy is a disturbing but fascinating read and it is not for the faint-hearted. The author’s anger and frustration is apparent especially in the insights it offers into the lives of teenagers.

For me it was reminder of the impact of a six-month stay in England in 2007, spent largely in the area in which I lived from the late 1940s until 1981 when I moved to Australia. While I had been back to England a couple of times for brief holidays, this was my first lengthy stay and one in which I was confronted with the past in a profoundly powerful way. My experience of living in a Sussex village, attending a local school and then secretarial college, of working behind the counter of the local shop and later pulling pints in the pub on weekends, getting my first job as a secretary and then as a reporter on a local paper, are the sorts of things young people are still doing there. They still go to the local youth club, cruise around on their bikes, play or watch the cricket matches, or ride along the lanes on a borrowed pony. They go dancing, fall in love, get married and divorced, have children, the cycle of life goes on, but somehow, while I was there for long enough to watch, listen and process what I saw and heard, I felt a change in the tenor of the places I knew and loved.

The territory wars, the frictions of class, the impact of money and the hostility between those who had it and those who didn’t, was striking and hard-edged. The jealousies and resentments, the ambition and lack of it, the sense of hopelessness and futility and the random acts of violence, all seemed harsher, more cruel and more common; the mistrust of outsiders more hostile. Rowling’s novel captured what I observed during that long stay. I felt dislike at the heart of the place, a yearning for how things used to be and a blunt acceptance that time had delivered bitterness and mistrust far more extreme than in my memory.   What I saw, back then in 2007, was largely what convinced me that I would never live in England again. Much as I loved it I realised I no longer really liked it.

I’m not suggesting that these sorts of changes have not happened in Australia in recent years, I know that they have – along with a whole lot more disturbing changes. But when you return to a place you have loved and trusted since childhood, and still sometimes think of as home, it is the clash of memory and nostalgia with contemporary reality that is so profoundly disturbing. It was the small things that I observed between individuals and groups of people, in communities and organisations, the way they spoke to and about each other, the harshness and hostility, and the overwhelming individual and national insularity, that had me swallowing the lump in my throat and turning away to disguise how close I was to tears.

Perhaps it was ever thus and perhaps years of separation simply provide clarity. But The Casual Vacancy crystalises all that I felt about England when I spent those six months in what I had thought was home. I don’t think this book is a great literary work, but it is a profoundly clever and insightful contemporary example of the state of the nation novel in the 21st century. I’m sure that many of you who, like me, came here from England, will have read this book and either loved or hated it. Perhaps it seemed irrelevant to you, tedious, or the nastiness, the profanities, the harsh realities and sheer bastardry of the characters, will have made you put it down unfinished. Perhaps you loved it and recommended it to friends.  I can understand all of that – reading can sometimes become so extraordinarily personal. Sometimes you read something that seems to be just what you need to help you sort out things that have been niggling for some time. This is what The Casual Vacancy has done for me.

At the same time as I was reading this I was watching the television coverage of Londoners turning out to help and support the occupants of the tower block so terrifying destroyed by fire. The appalling neglect of the safety and welfare of the residents was countered by the magnificent generosity of volunteers to who came with the essentials of food, clothing and shelter, and the courage of the fire and rescue crews. It seemed to symbolize the sprit of the Blitz, that sustained the British through the remaining years of the war. Coming so soon after the extraordinarily unexpected result of the recent UK election it was a reassuring reminder of what Britain can be, and what it could be again.

It’s that mix of past and present, light and dark, good and evil which is always so challenging, and which one always hopes will be drawn into balance.

If you are looking for a relaxing, uplifting read you won’t find it in The Casual Vacancy. But it is an engrossing and challenging book that provides intrigue, stark, dark humour and a thought-provoking dose of social realism.

It has made me want to re-read South of the River and Capital and I will write more about those books here when I’ve done so.

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