The Casual Vacancy
J K Rowling
London, Little Brown, 2012, 503p
Just yesterday, I read that J K Rowling's new novel, The Casual Vacancy, had managed to avoid the shortlist for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Only just, it seems. Rowling is clearly trying to break away from the Harry Potter enterprise, just like the poor children cast in those films. But with this adult novel, I felt J K went a little too far the other way - she has tried to be challenging and controversial, but left me confused and feeling slightly ill.
The Casual Vacancy is set following the death of a member of the parish council in the small West Country town of Pagford. The town is torn over a small area, known as the Fields, which accommodates a rather poor community - drug-addled and dangerous. Some want to help those in this deprived area, whilst others want responsibility for these low-lives to be given to the larger council of Yarvil. Amidst the bickering, Rowling tells the stories of several families and individuals, documenting their boredom, anger and resentment.
I found this novel somewhat challenging to read. The plot is littered with swear words, embarrassing internal monologues, and awkward sex scenes. Few of her characters come close to being likeable, and not one person in this novel is happy. Rowling's narrative here is very similar to her Harry Potter style (of course), but the vast difference in subject make me uncomfortable - I kept wanting some light comic relief from Ron.
I feel like Rowling is trying too hard to escape the trap of being typecast. The novel is too long, and the plot too complicated - there are simply too many characters. It's also rather unrealistic. Each character is a blatant stereotype, each with different problems, each problem being very extreme. For example, all here teenagers are either sex-crazed or self-harming. Just one happy person in this novel would have been a relief.
And yet, in the final chapters, I found myself with a lump in my throat - I was shocked to feel emotional about the lives of these unfortunate characters. Perhaps, somewhere within the 500 pages of complex story-telling, Rowling must have done some character development. The ending almost makes the rest of it worth it - but then I recollect of the challenge of wading through the first 300 pages. Maybe not, J K.