The Casual Vacancy

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Casual Vacancy radiates anger about the state of modern Britain, but it plays out entirely within one locality: the town of Pagford and the encroaching housing estate of The Fields.

Howard Mollison is a prosperous old shopkeeper, free from the modern male obsession with a flat stomach: the skin of his own abdomen peels and flakes within its flaps and folds, and it spills down over his private parts. He presides over the local council, and a circle of family and friends: his commercial partner Maureen; his aged wife Shirley; his son Miles, equally smug, a senior partner in a law firm; and Miles’ wife Samantha, who runs a lingerie shop, precarious commercially but an escape of sorts from the boredom and competitiveness that afflicts all three women. (The Mollisons’ lesbian daughter left town long ago as a pariah, and makes only a cameo appearance.) The women turn their nuanced malice on each other, and on those who cross their paths – like Miles’ junior colleague, the cold-fish lawyer Gavin.

Gavin has muddled his way into a relationship with the social worker Kay, refusing to commit but letting her back into his life whenever he is lonely or insecure. Kay is desperate enough for a partner to have taken a job in Pagford just to ‘secure’ Gavin for herself; to do she has uprooted her daughter Gaia during the critical years of late-secondary schooling.

Kay’s work takes her to The Fields, the cheerless housing estate built of concrete slabs that are now cracking and grey. Here we meet Terri: massively damaged by her own early life, she keeps getting dragged back into heroin and prostitution by the loathsome Obbo. Terri is the mother of a three-year-old boy, Robbie, and of Kystal, who is in her late teens. Krystal is one of the book’s central characters: belligerent and coarse, big-hearted, she does her dysfunctional best to save Robbie from being taken away by social workers. Kay is of some help to her, being more sensitive than her colleagues, but Kay’s ability to assist depends on the bureaucratic vagaries of the welfare system.

The tragedy for Krystal, and the main driver of the plot, is the death of the story’s hero, Barry Fairbrother, who we lose in the first few pages of the novel. Barry, a rare escapee from The Fields in his own youth, had become a local councillor and leading light in Pagford. He had taken pains to set up a school rowing club, giving Krystal a chance to shine, something for her extended family to grasp onto. One senses that had Barry lived on, Krystal’s angry inner knots might have been untied, and she might have learnt better labels than “muff-muncher” for her rich-girl opponents.

There is a huge cast of characters. Barry’s widow, Mary, is one of the most cleverly drawn. Her loss, coupled with her sylph-like figure and blonde hair, place her above all criticism, which is just as well for her as she is a small-minded princess. But a lot of the action is driven by teenagers. Two school boys are involved in important father-son subplots: Andrew has to live around his brutish, volatile dad Simon; more complex is the relationship between Andrew’s friend Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, and his father Colin or ‘Cubby’. Here the father is the more obviously insecure one (no shortage of frail males in this book). He struggles to hold together a normal life and conceal his mental disability, a form of paranoia. Fats, apparently in reaction, despises any form of concealment or vulnerability, and repeatedly whacks the fragile structures of his father’s life. A darkness seems to be developing in the mind of Fats, as though he could become a real-world Tom Riddle; it was the only time I was reminded of the Harry Potter series.

Fats – thin, cool and admired at school – senses the low self-esteem of a vulnerable female classmate, Sukhvinder. He launches a campaign of subtle and refined persecution. Sukhvinder is already the ugly duckling at home, put down by her stern mother Parminder. Parminder is a doctor, status-conscious but her religion brings with it a social conscience that drives her to support Barry Fairbrother’s push to protect the interests of The Fields’ residents.

Barry’s death sets up a casual vacancy on the local council, and the by-election becomes a contest over the fate of The Fields. The Mollison’s faction want to detach it from Pagford, and let it spiral downwards as government cutbacks set in; Parminder and Colin lead the opposition. But the by-election sets other things in motion as well.

Rowling described The Casual Vacancy as “sort of nineteenth-century: the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society”.  But Rowling is also like the great early nineteenth century authors Balzac and Walter Scott in her capacity to anchor her characters firmly in a particular social class, without reducing them to that and that alone. The characters’ social position dictates their status and life experience, within which their personalities steer them on individual courses.

An interesting aspect of the story is the weak presence of the actual working class. The respectable employed working folk seem to be under the wing of the middle class in Pagford, dwelling mainly in a ‘nice’ housing estate that does not come into the story. By contrast the people of The Fields seem to be not just unemployed, but demoralised and decultured, lacking the habits of mind that get you up for work or school each morning. Howard Mollison notes impatiently that they don’t try to help themselves, like the poor of his own youth, by growing vegetables in their yards. They are a lumpenproletariat, permeated by criminals. Of the main characters, the only employed working class people are Simon, who tends toward the underworld anyway, and social workers tied to The Fields. Rowling makes a passing reference to an ex-steelworker, a momentary reference to the way that Margaret Thatcher destroyed vast swathes of industry and unpicked so much of the social fabric of regional Britain during the 1980s.

In its anger at the state of modern Britain it reminded me of Jane Gardam’s Faith Fox and Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It produced an indignant, sneering reaction from The Telegraph and other defenders of the status quo.

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