The Casual Vacancy is more Dickensian than Dickens. If Dickens is searing social consciousness sprawled across a plot, dripping with characters and descriptions, this is Dickens with characters you actually care about and descriptions you actually want to read. (Sorry, Charlie.)
I am not a big fan of Dickens (can you tell?) but I somehow struggled through a big load of his books when I was a teenager because I thought they were good for me. I found them somewhat wordy and rambling in plot, and the descriptions more tedious than either terrifying or tear-jerking.
These days I try to read only books that I enjoy. Hence my plea for help for a “books you must read”, which I promise I am getting through, as life and work allow me.
With this list vaguely in mind, I thought that J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was Rachel’s recommendation but looking back I realise I bought the wrong book and Rachel recommended The Cuckoo’s Calling.
Anyway, totally unintentionally, I found that The Casual Vacancy was an ideal companion book to have read after Closed Doors.
Both books have similar themes and settings: an insular community, troubled adults who are incapable of tending to their children’s needs, and shocking acts of violence at the heart of them.
The term casual vacancy refers to the space that is left on a Parish Council when Counciller Barry Fairbrother, all round good egg (the characters in this book have excellently symbolic names), suddenly dies, exposing a giant rift at the heart of the Pagford village community. One half of Pagford has always rankled since the “The Fields”, an area of deprivation, troubled families and home to a drug rehabiliation centre, were assigned to fall within their boundaries in the sixties.
Barry, on the other side, grew up in The Fields, but “made good” and is determinedly optimistic about the ability of other to follow him out of them, with support. He is the most vocal but also respected and tactful supporter of The Fields on the Parish Council and with his passing, the vacuum created is wide open to be filled.
It sounds quite dry but the depth of character is astounding. The Casual Vacancy as opposed to Closed Doors is what you get when you take a character based as opposed to a plot based approach. It’s a lot longer for a start. It’s also a lot more realistically violent. The term casual vacancy reminded me here of casual violence: from the teenagers amongst each other, to the family man who lashes out at his wife and teenage sons. Rowling does not pass judgement but we clearly see that neglectful or violent behaviour both arises from and begets more of the same. (Tracy, this book is definitely not for you – it gets quite disturbing from a social work point of view.)
To divide approaches into plot- based and character-based is rather simplistic. The Casual Vacancy contains plot aplenty, but plot is always driven by character. The “mass” of characters which drove the plot in Closed Doors become a sprawling, but carefully portrayed “cause and effect”web of individuals whose motives and actions have knock on effects on each other. However, I never felt that any of the descriptions or events could have been cut out, and I always looked forward to getting back to the book and unusually for me, I didn’t skim read at all, but enjoyed the many complex motivations. For example, I was amazed by the delicate reasoning Rowling has behind an underage girl’s decision to sleep with her boyfriend. From afar, a meaningless gesture by a girl too young to care less. But closely examined, it’s the results of a girl’s anger at her mother at uprooting her from the home she has always known for the sake of a relationship that everyone else can see is doomed; the girl wants her mother to know that she “was driven to brand herself on Marco’s memory because she was being forced to leave him”.
As expected, following the legacy of Harry Potter, Rowling is excellent at getting inside teenagers’ heads. The other thing that The Casual Vacancy has in common with HP is the gripping force of character of the “villains”. I thought it was quite clever the way this works in the web of cause and effect; the villains are the only ones whose pasts are not shown to us, and so Rowling is able to present an overall argument for the way social deprivation works without cheating us of the opportunity to boo and hiss at a couple of true villains.
As for magic, Rowling fashions some truly black magical prose out of the landscape of The Fields, for example, conjuring the half remembered image of a dead man in the bathroom, both beautiful and disturbing, from the mind of anti-heroine, teenage Fields resident Krystal Weedon.
It’s true that the beginning is a bit unwieldy, throwing so many characters and inter-relations at us. In this age of the TV “episode recap”, J.K. Rowling has basically treated us as intelligent readers by not over explaining everything at the beginning. Which I kind of appreciate, but it’s the only thing that would stop me from unhesitatingly recommending this to a friend; I would fear that they would be turned off by the anticipation that this would just be a book on dry village politics and therefore miss out on the fantastic read to follow.
This book is open ended and realistic about how entrenched society’s social problems are; realistic that it takes a lot of effort, or an overwhelming experience, for most people to even think about being able to change themselves. But it still manages a magical, moving ending, which captures the way that most magical thing, a human mind, works, loves, hates and desires.