Warning: contains over 200 F-words, 10 mentions of heroin, and zero references to Horcruxes. Yes, to say that Miss Rowling has moved somewhat away from the sugar-coated kisses of Cho Chang and the Boy Wizard would be an understatement. This is Harry minus the magic, with plenty of casual sex, self-harming and regular drug taking, and all embellished with profanities that put Voldemort and his naughty wizard mouth to shame. School robes are replaced by stringy thongs, turreted Hogwarts with the tripled-storied Winterdown Comprehensive, and that strange man turning up on the doorstep is less likely to be your friendly magical groundskeeper than your local drug dealer. Sorry Hagrid.
It’s a tale about the muggles, a change from the happy-go-lucky boundary of the fantasy genre and a ticket into the seedier territory of realism. And why not? After more than a decade of writing about owls and broomsticks, surely JK deserves to dabble in other genres. But the problem with The Casual Vacancy isn’t to do with the change in content, it isn’t even to do with the “miraculously unguarded vaginas” or the “the gossamer cocoon” condom. It’s to do with the generality of her characters, and the caricature of the real world that they create.
The absence of any kind of moderation is ultimately the novel’s undoing. It’s set in pretty Pagford, with Hogsmeade-esque cobbled streets, picturesque buildings and a community church. It even boasts its very own authentic twelfth-century abbey and residents can enjoy the gentle tones of undisrupted birdsong on their morning rambles. So far, so English idyll. But behind the twitching curtains and hanging baskets, Pagford-Privet Drive is nothing more than a breeding ground for bitter rivalry, sexual frustration and badly concealed racism.
Just around the corner from Pagford is the public housing project known as the Fields. It’s a sprawling estate filled with dirty terrace blocks, boarded windows and is “swamped by the offspring of scroungers”, and the plot wrestles with the question of who should have responsibility for this deprived area. And unfortunately for its residents, the main man committed to saving the Fields dies on page five.
The death of Liberal Barry Fairbrother creates a ‘casual vacancy’ on the parish council, and the brawl for who will fill this vacancy, and for the future of the Fields, begins. From page one of Harry Potter, JK makes clear her stance on the middle classes, with the author introducing readers to a bigoted couple whose opposition to magic verges on fanatical. And this extends into the pompous characterisation in her new book, top baddie revealed as obese deli owner Howard Mollison, who dons a deerstalker – just in case readers fail to grasp how middleclass he is.
In a sense, Rowling’s desperate attempt to leave fantasy behind her comes full circle again. Because her novel is fantasy. The Casual Vacancy may have replaced magical prowess for the more conventional skill of IT, but the events that take place in the novel are too extreme to ever be called real. Satirical of Pagford, maybe, but one gets the impression that Rowling doesn’t mean to mock the residents of the Fields or their situations when she includes prostitution, drug taking, drowning and suicide all under one title.
The only problem with approaching Pagford as drenched in snobbery and hypocrisy, is that the tone jars. It makes what is clearly meant to be a novel about the real world display less realism than the Ministry of Magic. The Fields are meant to show the ‘seamy underside’ in all its sincerity, and not be undermined with moralistic steamrolling and condemnation of dinner party chatter of its neighbouring town. It’s meant to show a neighbourhood with all its peeling cream paint, petty crime and prostitution, with individuals who are not, as Rowling says they often are, “discussed as this homogeneous mash, like porridge.”
Why then, does JK insist on serving this porridge? Any diversity in the mash is lost to the fact this book is laden with extreme stereotypes and stock situations. Krystal, for example, is one of the novel’s main driving forces. She’s rude, openly aggressive and intimidated by big words and Rowling attempts to justify why this is. But the backstory is repetitive and generic, and although her mother can remember the precise dosage of methadone she is on and not her daughter’s age, we feel too distanced from Krystal’s life to see the fiction as reality, to emphasize why she steals, why she wants to get pregnant, and why she copulates within metres of her four-year-old brother.
As one of many twenty-somethings who grew up with Harry and Co, I had graduated the scholarship of Hogwarts and demanded more. It’s easy to overlook the clunky prose, or the fact JK decides to put whole paragraphs in ellipsis (annoying), but harder to forgive the impression that Rowling is furiously rebelling from the realm of witchcraft and wizardry. Expletives feel forced, the sex scenes fictional, the grotesque too sought for and the references to Rihanna and her umbrella too try-hard. It would have been interesting for readers – and for Rowling – if The Casual Vacancy was published under a pseudonym, without Rowling’s need to reassure her readers that this is an adult novel, and without readers striving to find constant comparisons with the best-selling series of all time.
The book isn’t bad by all accounts. Once one gets passed the initial hurdle of archetypal characterisation and the painstakingly drawn out first half, the novel actually becomes quite engaging. Rowling tries to show us that vacancies exist all around, and are not confined to the ballot box: in Robbie’s cardboard boxes, in Parminder’s self-harming daughter, in Kay’s futile relationship. Rowling highlights, albeit with an awful sadness, that gulfs are ever present in everyone’s shared experiences, and that every human being is tied together by their own mortality. The casual vacancy is a vacancy that cannot be filled by the wave of a magic wand. There is no magic, no spell to make the pitiless stockpile situations go away, no Dobby to come and accio the bad. It is ruthless and it is terribly clichéd, but it is well worth a read.