Not What We Expected?
I have childhood memories of being thirsty and expecting to take a big drink of juice, only to have my senses startled when I find I’m drinking water or milk instead. On a few occasions, the shocking sensation was heightened when what I assumed to be something sweet was actually a cup of milk that had gone sour. Sometimes, the expected juice that was actually milk eventually ended up tasting good, once I got my mind off of my expectation of juice. When I began reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, I experienced a similar mental hurdle. Although I had realized this probably wouldn’t be comparable to the Harry Potter series, I was still expecting to taste a certain literary quality from J.K. Rowling that I thought I had previously experienced.
On the surface, The Casual Vacancy is an adult novel that may seem rather boring and confusing as readers try to figure out nearly 30 characters and how their lives and sub-plots tie together. Its pages contain strong language, and the lurid, violent, and vengeful thoughts of the characters, though the sexual themes are neither explicit nor salacious. The cast of characters each share their own secret hypocrisies; and that, I believe is the main thrust of the book.
The story begins as the small town of Pagford is shaken when Barry Fairbrother dies of a brain aneurysm. His death leaves a parish council seat open, a “casual vacancy,” as it’s technically called. The vacancy is to be filled by an election, with various town members vying for the opening. This book is the story of what happens as that vacancy is attempted to be filled.
The World We Don’t Want to Exist
Looking deeper, there’s the story of people like Krystal Weedon, her three-year-old brother, Robbie, and her heroine-addicted mother, Terri. The Weedons are unaware of the politics and scrambling that are surrounding the election for a new Council chair, though it’s choices will inevitably effect them.
Like Krystal, Barry grew up in The Fields, the impoverished tenement flats that the council was deciding whether or not to relinquish to another local city, Yarvil. (Reading the Call the Midwife series was helpful in giving me a relative understanding of tenements.) Barry wanted to keep The Fields, while many of the others wanted to get rid of its unsightly attachment to Pagford. Barry looked for potential in Krystal and the children of The Fields.
This books reminds me that many people and I are a lot like the people of Pagford. We feel that if we isolate ourselves from the poor, from the overlooked and marginalized of society, we won’t have to think about them anymore, much less have to enter into their complicated lives. Books like this make us uncomfortable, because people who are like the characters described make us uncomfortable. If we keep ourselves removed far enough, we can pretend they don’t exist.
I’d like to imagine that this is a world where most people just have their off moments here and there, but the rest of the time they spend their happy hours gathered around the fire with their children, a good book to read, and classical music playing in the background. But life is messy, and beyond the fact that we’re all born with sin, there are a lot of people in this world caught in an endless cycle of poverty, abuse, and hurt. It’s really easy to see it in black and white, but that’s an over-simplistic view of life
If this book is written for adults, then I am better able to understand the colorful language used by the characters. (I don’t know that I’d want my teenage children reading it, but I’ve yet to parent a teenager. I know that I would have been shocked to read this book as a very sheltered teen. I was abhorred enough as a teen that my sister’s Christian school literature class was reading Fahrenheit 451.) Rowling doesn’t glamorize the sin and hypocrisy. In fact, for much of the book you feel disgust toward most of the characters in the book. There is no miraculous ending, nor even a triumphant climax in which everyone is at least on the trajectory toward a happily ever after, although perhaps that’s really an American literary expectation that we by habit require as the gold standard for a good story.
At the end, the town is definitely changed by the circumstances surrounding the death of the Weedon children, and by extension Barry Fairbrother’s death. The book begins and ends with death, and it can be a rather dismal read. If you’re like me and tend to be more depressed on cloudy days or when you read a sad story, it may not be a good combo–save this book for sunny days. Nonetheless, it is a book that makes readers think, and challenges us to look internally to see ourselves in many of these characters.
After finishing, I look back and realize I had expected a different literary experience, yet my initial disgust with the book faded as I read on. I think that maybe the literary value was there — not in the choice of words nor in or a triumphant ending, but in the story as a whole. There is something in all of us that reacts much like Colin — fearful that our secrets might be exposed.
The Casual Vacancy is not the book that I’d recommend everyone must. go. buy.immediately. because it will change your life. Yet, neither do I see that we should casually dismiss (pun intended) or write the book off because it deals with sleazy and fallen characters. Further, reading it may be a literary encounter that shapes souls.
My husband compared the feel of this book to some of the stories that Charles Dickens wrote. They are dark, and depressing, and they show us an element of humanity that makes us cringe. It’s easier to read it from Dickens, because it occurs in another time and another place. The Casual Vacancy is set in today’s world, though within the imaginary British town of Pagford, which at least distances it from us a little more than if it were on our home turf.
If you can see the underlying thread, you can see that Rowling understands the plight of the underprivileged, particularly children. Barry did this too, and in the end it is clear that the vacancy he left was not a mere position, but the absence of a man who cared and loved for those who otherwise seemed unworthy of such love. In such absence, their lives also met an end. The conclusion gives us a glimmer of hope that others in Pagford began to see the true vacancy, and several began to step up to fill it. And thus, we are challenged to do the same.