Book Review: The Casual Vacancy

My favorite kind of books are the ones that grab you by the collar on the first page, swallow you whole, and leave you with an acute sense of loss when they finally spit you back out at the end.

You don’t read the book. The book reads you.

The Casual Vacancy is not one of those books.

Mild spoilers ahead.

When I began reading The Casual Vacancy, my first instinct was that this was an account of what happened to the Dursleys after they packed up their car and drove away, at Harry’s request, in the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The small town of Pagford is just the sort of place they would adore—an idyllic country town where the most important factors in a family’s respectability are 1) how long one has lived there and 2) one’s level of lawn care. The plot concerns the sudden death of Councilman Barry Fairbrother, a staunch advocate for the impoverished, and the flurry of intrigue surrounding the election to fill his seat.

The Casual Vacancy is everything that didn’t make it into the Potter series: sex, drugs, and the internet. If this book was fanfiction, it’d come with trigger warnings for rape, dubious consent, domestic abuse, drug abuse, racism, sexism, self-harm, pedophilia, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, suicide… and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. This is something that features heavily in most other reviews that I’ve read. They’re sure to include direct quotes of an erotic nature, eager to demonstrate that (as Rowling insisted) this isn’t a novel for children. But to characterize this book as merely a juicy, dirty tale of scandal would be doing the story a great disservice. There are some passages that are beautiful and thought-provoking:

“She wanted to shout at the kids at work, sometimes, too. She wanted to scream, You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

And

But who could bear to know which stars were already dead, she thought, blinking up at the night sky; could anybody stand to know that they all were?

At its heart, it’s a tale of class warfare wrapped in a traditional English novel. Like an English novel, the plot moves quite slowly, and no one kisses the person they love. And also like an English novel, the reader has to do the work; you can’t passively sit back and wait for the story to grip you. You’ll be waiting for a long time.

The book is entirely character-driven. I didn’t believe it until I went back and skimmed through its 500 pages, but all of the events take place in just a few weeks. Over two dozen characters get their own narrative voice. This is Rowling’s greatest strength—every character is fleshed out, given motivations and dirty secrets, forcing the reader to develop a complicated relationship with all of Pagford’s residents. This is also where Rowling has taken much criticism—it’s obvious that she has an agenda, and not every character is given the same amount of time in a favorable spotlight. To Rowling’s credit, though, the reader is given enough information to at least understand why the characters behave badly. The teenagers still get the best of Rowling’s writing, which makes sense, seeing as she’s had over a decade of practice writing in their voices.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Pagford wasn’t completely whitewashed, as one would expect from a mostly conservative, rural English town. The Jawanda family is Indian (and Sikh!). The Price family might include an interracial couple—Ruth is described as a “dark woman” and Simon has thick, “light brown hair.” However, it’s important to note that Bellatrix Lestrange was also described as “dark” by Rowling, in comparison to her sister Narcissa, and they were very clearly white. So though it seems that though the Price family is of ambiguous race, they could be an opportunity to include a more racially-diverse cast if the book was ever turned into a movie or TV miniseries.*

While the Prices don’t seem to experience any racial discrimination (adding more weight to the theory that they’re either mixed or white), the members of the Jawanda family have to deal with it on a regular basis. Vikram, the father, experiences fewer effects of it, due to the fact that he performs a triple bypass heart surgery on Howard Mollison, Pagford’s leading citizen. His wife Parminder is also a doctor, one of the town’s general practitioners. Although she is member of the parish council, her race becomes fodder for suspicion when she decides to wear a sari to a funeral. It’s quite possible that non-white characters only see prejudice when they act like non-white characters.

It’s also clear that men and women are treated differently. Every woman in the book is, in some way, defined by a man in her life. The same could be said for the men, but for the women this always results in some kind of problem. A girl is tormented by a male bully, a young woman’s loss of her male mentor creates a void in her life, a woman is at the mercy of her male drug dealer, a woman moves from a big city to follow a man who is barely interested in her… the list goes on and on. Rowling raises complex questions about the roles women do have and should have in society. Although there are plenty of “feminist-sounding” female characters (pursuing careers, balancing a career with motherhood, etc) and the novel certainly passes the Bechdel Test, it’s unclear if Rowling is challenging the way all of these women are treated. While seeing the frustrated internal monologue of a character experiencing racial discrimination, the female characters accept their treatment by men as just another part of life. Pat, Howard’s lesbian daughter, shows up for a couple of pages to remark how she’s estranged from her family because of her father’s refusal to accept her lifestyle. She’s the only female character who takes constructive action against the man who treats her poorly, but doing so all but removes her from the story (and, for the record, she’s rejected by her father for her sexual orientation, not her gender or sex). Does Rowling mean to show the pervasiveness of traditional male-female roles, and how they go unchallenged, even by women? Or perhaps Rowling only intended to challenge racial and class bias, and didn’t think to include challenges to sexual bias. I hope the former, though I suspect the latter.

If the reader can push through the multitude of narrative voices and follow the tangled web of conflicting motivations, an unlikely hero comes to the forefront. It’s a story that’s worth your time, and I know many of you will probably have some extra over the rest of the month.

I’ll leave you with a few lines I think offer the best summary:

But with her history,” said Miles, “it isn’t rocket science, is it, to guess that she’ll relapse?”
“If you apply that rule across the board, you ought not to have a driving license, because with your history you’re bound to drink and drive again.”
Miles was temporarily baffled, but Samantha said coldly, “I think that’s a rather different thing.”
“Do you?” said Kay. “It’s the same principle.”
“Yes, well, principles are sometimes the problem, if you ask me,” said Miles.  “Often what’s needed is a bit of common sense.”
“Which is the name people usually give to their prejudices,” rejoined Kay.

*Incidentally, BBC announced today that a tv adaptation is in the works.

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