BEYERS DE VOS
The initial problem with the Casual Vacancy is that JK Rowling’s style is too distinct. This wouldn’t be a concern for any other author (in fact, it would be an asset), but Rowling is not simply any other author. She would, no doubt, like us to forget about Harry Potter when reading her first book for adults, but her previous work has so over-familiarised audiences with her style that for the first few chapters, the memory of Harry Potter is at the fore-front of your mind, and it creates a jarring incongruency.
But it isn’t fair to allow the ghost of Harry Potter to infect your judgement of The Casual Vacancy, and luckily the power of Rowling’s prose (and profanity) eventually conquers the nagging feeling that Hagrid is just around the corner.
Rowling’s new world could not be any less like Hogwarts: it is bracingly real.
Set in the fictional British parish of Pagford, the action revolves around the death of a man named Barry Fairbrother and the election surrounding the vacant seat his untimely exit leaves on the parish council, where he served as a councillor. Soon the seemingly idyllic town is revealed to be a place of prejudice, corruption and deep-seated social conflict as the election for Barry’s replacement nears.
The story is told through a multitude of voices, and the large cast of characters each have their own personal dramas against which the race for heart and soul of Pagford plays out.
Rowling is at her best when she is writing her teenage characters, whose inner and outer lives are deftly described with an acute and sometimes poignant realism: a realism Rowling revels in. She takes full advantage of the freedom to engage themes a children’s book didn’t allow her to approach. These teenagers watch porn, smoke weed, self-harm and have sex; they are abused, misused and they swear – a lot.
The older characters, however, have a tendency to become caricatures, especially those who too obviously represent a segment of society Rowling clearly derides: the privileged middle class. These characters are snobbish, spiteful, selfish, pretentious, petty and irredeemable. They become a clear representation of Rowling’s social agenda (and she does have an agenda in this book): her championing of the poor and the under-privileged. Whether or not her assessment of British society is fair or accurate is not the issue – but you can’t help and wonder if the novel wouldn’t have been better if she had given these characters the same complexity and subtlety she gives the characters whose causes she so clearly sympathises with.
This, plus Rowling’s tendency to overwrite (her sentences can become cluttered by unnecessary explanations and descriptions) are the novel’s main weaknesses.
However, her treatment of big themes (death, grief, fidelity, poverty, abuse, drug use) is intelligent and moving. Rowling is truly an excellent writer, who has mastered the art of a well-crafted plot. She tells an engrossing story, by turns darkly comic and strikingly tragic, and she tells it well. Is it flawless? No. Does it deserve the hype Rowling’s name has attracted? No. Is it a good book that is worth reading? Absolutely.
The Casual Vacancy is available at Bookmark for R280.
Illustration: Matt Blease