I mentioned in my previous post that Radio National Books And Arts made me an offer I couldn’t refuse when they asked me to review JK Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy.
How could anyone say no to a book that sold 2.5 million copies before it was even released? To review The Casual Vacancy was a chance to bask in the reflected glory of a literary supernova, albeit from a very great distance.
Secretly, too, I was attracted by the prospect of knowing my opinion would make no material difference to the success of the book. As an author, I am always aware of the damage a poor review can do, making me reluctant to review books I don’t like. I thought the Harry Potter books from number four on needed a damn good edit and with The Casual Vacancy clocking in at over 500 pages, I was already sharpening my claws as I started reading.
I found it hard going at first. But I was reading in small snatches and a book of this magnitude with its large ensemble cast — I counted 20 different points of view in the narrative — requires concentration. Once I gave it my full attention, I whipped through it. And I’m still thinking about it days later.
The book opens with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a member of the Parish Council in Pagford, a fictional town in the West Country whose ‘pretty façade’ masks deep divisions. Much of the townsfolk’s angst is directed at the residents of The Fields, a grim public housing estate. Barry has held the balance of power on a Council that has at best tolerated The Fields and the ‘casual vacancy’ created by his death presents an opportunity for the more conservative elements to push for the closure of a local drug treatment clinic and see responsibility for the public housing estate reassigned to a neighbouring town.
JK Rowling uses this premise to expose deep-rooted class and race prejudices in British society, and the result is both bleak and powerful. On the one hand she satirises the ignorance and hubris of elites. On the other, she humanises without a trace of romanticism the poor and vulnerable, epitomised by The Fields most notorious family, the Weedons.
There’s not a lot of musicality to JK Rowling’s writing. But I can forgive her that in light of her talents for spinning a good yarn and creating a cast of authentic characters — I found the teenagers in The Casual Vacancy particularly convincing — and especially for the choice of prejudices she’s chosen to tackle.
In an interview with The Guardian Weekly, Rowling describes her interest in “that drive, that rush to judgment, that is so prevalent in our society.”
“How many of us are able to expand our minds beyond our own personal experience? So many people…say, ‘Well, it worked for me’ or, ‘This is how my father managed it’ — these trite catch phrases — and the idea that other people might have had such a different life experience that their choices and beliefs and behaviours would be completely different from your own escapes a lot of otherwise intelligent people. The poor are discussed as this homogenous mash, like porridge. The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people.”
I find it truly admirable that the world’s most famous self-made woman chose to write a novel scathing in its criticism of the notion that anyone can ‘make it’ if they just work hard enough.
There is a scene towards the end of the book that takes place in the Parish Council meeting designed to rule on the future of the drug treatment clinic, in which local GP Parminder Jawanda takes on Council Chair Howard Mollison as he pontificates about how the drug-addicted residents of The Fields are a drain on the public purse. Dr Jawanda’s turns Mollison’s argument back on him to devastating effect for both of them.
Likewise, the book’s tragic ending also manages to demonstrate how prejudices are mutually damaging, both to those who hold them and those on the receiving end.
Listen to my review on Books and Arts Daily here.