I decided to read J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy because I figured that if it’s even half as good as the magnificent Harry Potter series, it’ll still be pretty damn good. Well, the book starts out damn good but then slips down a few notches. It’s an intimate character study of the residents of the small town of Pagford and their myriad reactions to the death of one of their own, Barry Fairbrother. Barry happens to be on the town council, which is in the midst of some sensitive re-zoning decisions, so his death has more than simply personal repercussions. Rowling establishes a small-scale panorama of Pagford, full of strivers and poseurs concerned with protecting their own tiny fiefdoms.
The book opens with Rowling’s typical mastery of detail, both in creating the town and in her incisive awareness of how people respond to Barry’s death – shock; shadenfreude; the morbid, self-important thrill of sharing tragic news with others. Even if you’ve never experienced the particular emotion Rowling describes, you can instantly recognize it as authentic because she does it with such clarity.
The problems begin when Rowling moves from her characters’ interiority to their external circumstances. She follows the “each person has her own problems” formula so deliberately that it starts to feel mechanical. Worse, it sometimes feels inauthentic, which is unusual for Rowling. And she keeps piling on the suffering until it reaches a contrived crescendo, reminding me of movies like Crash and Babel. By the time we got to the rape and incest, I’d switched off.
The misery is especially potent in the sections about Krystal Weedon, a teenager living with her mother and young brother in the estates, or low-income housing, surrounding Pagford. Krystal’s home is plagued by parental neglect, drug use, criminality, and sexual violence. Some of the details about Krystal, down to her tight ponytails and tracksuits, remind me of the lead character in the British film Fish Tank, another young girl chafing against the constraints of life in the estates.
With her focus on the damaged lives of adults and their children, Rowling illustrates how the young pay for their parents’ problems. They pay the price for their parents’ violence, drug addiction, and mental illness by being borderline sociopaths, painfully insecure, or self-destructive. Only in one case, that of Dr. Parminder Jawanda and her daughter Sukhvinder, does the final crisis of the book actually bring parent and child to a better understanding of each other. There’s hope that, with the newfound support of her parents, especially her mother, Sukhvinder may be able to move beyond her self-destructive behavior. But there’s very little of that hope to go around in Rowling’s initially absorbing, ultimately bleak novel.