After delivering seven magical books about Harry Potter, Rowling had raised high expectations for fans with her new book – A Casual Vacancy. Harry is a hard act to follow, especially when the magic is missing and only the Muggles remain. If you can forget who the author is and imagine she is a gritty British version of Jonathan Franzen, the disappointment is easier to digest.
The story centers around the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, chair of the parish Council (equivalent to a small town mayor), and the rippling effect on the lives of those who knew him in Pagford. The little town problems of petty jealousies and back-stabbing gossip are matched against drug addiction, child neglect, self-mutilation, prostitution, and rape. Rowling also adds profane language – just to be sure you know this is not a children’s book.
The slice of humanity represented in the flawed characters includes universal antagonisms between the haves and have-nots, those who long for the good old days and the young who cannot change the world fast enough, the struggle between social responsibility and self-preservation. Rowling’s strength is in her descriptive back-stories, introducing you to small-minded people you already know; this is a small town and secrets are hard to keep. The foil is Krystal Weedon, the deprived teenager desperate for a better life – the life that Barry was about to launch her into with an interview with the local newspaper – before he unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. From the other side of the tracks, Krystal’s struggles are overwhelming: a drug addict mother and a life of poverty and filth. The possibility that she will be saved kept me reading, but she was the doomed tragic heroine.
People can be cruel, and Rowling brings out the worst in them, as she exposes their weaknesses and dares them to be civil, in the wake of the one dead man who seemed to have kept the monsters at bay. As the story marches slowly past Barry’s funeral, facades fall aside and the race to fill the dead man’s Council seat is on. The action escalates to a brutal exposé of small town politics with teenagers hacking into the Council’s website, creating chaos and feeding the misery, while seeking revenge for parental injustices.
The story is divided into seven sections; by the fourth section, I could not imagine that life could get worse but I was wrong. With little comic relief, the story heads nonstop into a Shakespearean tragic ending – dead bodies and ruined lives. The small town goes on being small-minded.
Rowling clearly makes her point that she can write stories for adults, and over 500 pages of A Casual Vacancy raise serious social issues that adults need to address – all in an unsympathetic view of the human condition. If I had not known about Harry Potter, I may not have missed the hope and possibilities that are deliberately avoided.