The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults is set in the fictional town of Pagford, an area where the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ grows ever wider with each passing day. The Casual Vacancy of the title is the job advertisement for the election of a new parish councillor, after the death of the much-admired Barry Fairbrother, who keels over in the opening pages of the book. Fairbrother, a working class hero, who never forgot about those less fortunate than himself, is one of the few characters in the ensemble cast, that you can really warm to.
The local Parish Council are planning to vote on whether or not to cast off their troublesome dodgy housing estate, with its drug problems and welfare dependent occupants. Barry was one of the few councillors to support The Fields, but one of those vying for his vacant seat, Miles Mollison, has different ideas and has chosen to stand, not for altruistic reasons but to keep the riff-raff out.
As well as Barry’s devastated family, there is one other character, Krystal Weedon, who has been very badly affected by his death. Barry seemed to be the only person in Pagford who saw potential in Krystal. He encouraged her to join the rowing team, which was the only thing in her life that she had done for herself. Krystal reminds me of Vicky Pollard of Little Britain fame, although there is nothing remotely funny about the way Krystal lives.
Decisions being made in the UK right now around housing are being made at local government level and something that once seemed irrelevant and dull, suddenly takes on great importance when local government officials have the power to okay or veto large scale housing developments in what were once quiet rural communities. I too have sat through ‘interminable, ill-humoured council meetings,’ where decisions are taken that could have a profound effect on the local community.
The town of Pagford is a microcosm of British life. Many of the characters reflect the current attitudes, which have hardened in recent years, polarising society into ‘skivers’ versus ‘strivers’. Tabloid newspapers make much of the rising cost of the welfare budget but you don’t need to be an economist to work out that in a recession (caused by the banking crisis and not the poor) that those struggling to get on the jobs ladder and the over 50s, who have been made redundant and replaced by cheaper, younger workers, are having to resort to state handouts. It is hardly a life of luxury, despite the relentless tabloid headlines of examples of feckless welfare-dependents and their deviant behaviour.
Most of the ‘haves’ in The Casual Vacancy come across as unpleasant, small-minded and in some cases downright vindictive. Samantha Mollison, wife of Miles, describes him thus: ‘Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.’ Then there is this apt metaphor for rural Middle England life: ‘Miles, Samantha thought, was looking back at his father like a big fat Labrador, quivering in expectation of a treat.’
If Miles is a Labrador, then Simon Price is an aggressive, menacing, guard dog. He terrorises his family, not just with threats but with physical violence. He is particularly cruel to his wife: ‘Simon was seized with a brutal urge to punish her for intuiting his own fears and for stoking them with her anxiety.’
The characters on the Left seem to be afforded more sympathy than those on the Right but even well-meaning social worker Kay comes across as someone who sees her clients as a series of case notes and problems rather than as human beings. Kay is regarded with contempt by both her daughter, who blames her mother for ruining her life by uprooting her from the excitement of Hackney, and her ungrateful boyfriend, Gavin. Kay, who made the move to Pagford to spend more time with Gavin, is callously cast aside when she tries to take their relationship further than the occasional night in together. Gavin, who can’t wait to be rid of her, reflects on their relationship, thus: ‘there had been Kay; clinging to him like an aggressive and threatening barnacle.’
There is no doubt that J.K Rowling has written a novel for our time, in the way that Dickens and Trollope did in the Victorian era. Many other writers have had a stab at writing the state-of-the-nation novel, including Jonathan Franzen, writing about middle class life in the US. Where Rowling soars above her peers, is her depiction of the lives of those at the bottom of the heap, in this case, the Weedons. It is at times heartbreaking to read about Robbie’s neglect and his sister, Krystal’s modest aspirations to have her own house, so that she can take Robbie off their drug addicted mother’s hands and try to give him a life. Perhaps the subtitle of The Casual Vacancy should have been Hard Times because whether you agree with the politics or not, life is only going to become harder for those, like Krystal and Robbie, who for whatever reason, cannot help themselves.