The Casual Vacancy
By J.K. Rowling
503 pages, $35
By Jean Westmoore
News BOOK REVIEWER
The unfamiliar British of “philosopher’s stone” was Americanized to “Sorcerer’s Stone” for the first Harry Potter book. To that way of thinking, J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy” might be rendered as “Death Creates an Opening on the Village Board.”
Yes, the title of Rowling’s first novel planted firmly in the world of muggles comes from one Charles Arnold-Baker’s municipal handbook, “Local Council Administration.”
While that might sound like a dull topic, Rowling uses this 21st century update of the English village novel to deliver a kick to the groin of the 1 percent.
She may be a billionaire now, but Rowling remembers being a single mother on welfare, the accompanying loss of self and dignity, and she gives poverty and addiction, greed and self-interest a very human face, as squabbling neighbors bumping up against each other with explosive results.
It’s not exactly “Middlemarch,” but it is entertaining.
Pagford is the very model of what an English village should be with its cobbled square and quaint shops, its ruined abbey, its parkland along the winding River Orr. But beneath this idyllic façade, a kind of war is being waged: between husbands and wives, adolescents and their parents.
These private battles intersect and overlap with the class war being waged on the parish council between liberal-minded allies and a faction hoping to shut down the local drug clinic and alter Pagford’s boundaries to exclude the Fields, a sprawling housing project that sucks up Pagford’s resources and sends its troubled and troublesome offspring to mingle with Pagford youth at the local public high school, Winterdown Comprehensive.
At the heart of the novel is foul-mouthed, sexually experienced 16-year-old Krystal Weedon, “byword and dirty joke” at school, who is waging a lonely battle to keep her drug-addicted mother off the smack and her little brother out of foster care.
“Casual Vacancy” refers to the shockingly sudden demise, in the first chapter, of one Barry Fairbrother, a father of four and member of the Pagford parish council, who drops dead of an aneurysm outside the local golf club on his way to an anniversary dinner with his wife.
Fairbrother, an aptly named selfless figure whose halo shines ever brighter as the novel goes on, himself had grown up in the Fields and gone on to get a university education.
A tireless advocate for the disadvantaged, he had started a girls rowing team at Winterdown Comprehensive and served as coach. He had also taken a special interest in serving as mentor to Krystal.
Villainy wears an apron and serves up olives and pate in the Pagford universe. Howard Mollison, the morbidly obese, lecherous owner of Pagford’s delicatessen, is chair of the parish council and sees Fairbrother’s death as a way to finally tilt the council toward his anti-Fields agenda. Meanwhile, his wife Shirley serves as inept manager of the parish council website.
Colin Wall, deputy headmaster of the high school who secretly suffers the torment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, declares his candidacy for the council to carry on Fairbrother’s work despite the misgivings of his guidance-counselor wife Tessa.
Then, a surprise candidate emerges, the aptly named Simon Price, a man of dubious morals and violent temper, who regularly refers to his acne-scarred teenage son Andrew as Pizza Face and sees a council position as another way to line his own pockets.
Meanwhile, Dr. Parminder Jawanda, Fairbrother’s ally on the council, is stunned at the depth of her grief at his death but is blind to the suffering of her dyslexic daughter Sukhvinder, who has resorted to cutting herself after being the target of relentless bullying at school and on the Internet.
(The ladies of Pagford are all enamored with Jawanda’s handsome husband Vikram, a cardiac surgeon. Rowling writes: “Old Pagford … generally forgave Vikram the crimes that it could not forget in his wife: brownness, cleverness and affluence.”)
In fact, adolescents emerge as the driving force in the plot but while Harry Potter books contained violence and unexpected death, “The Casual Vacancy” may surprise Rowling fans with its drug abuse, profanity and sexual content. (The adolescent sexual fantasizing includes Andrew Price fondly recalling 5-year-old Krystal pulling down her pants in school and exposing her genitalia as an experience akin to “Father Christmas” making a surprise appearance. At another point, Andrew, lusting after a new schoolmate, experiences “an ache in his heart and in his balls.”)
Rowling understands that teenagers live within a self-contained universe that parents rarely get a glimpse of; Sukhvinder, Andrew, the Walls’ son “Fats” and other adolescents in “The Casual Vacancy” fully inhabit their own world. Rowling paints a dispiriting portrait of a public high school, the casual cruelty of teenagers, the faculty striving in vain to be liked. In one reference to a teacher: “She never bothered to call the register formally … and the class despised her for it.”
Similarly bleak is the picture Rowling paints of Krystal’s home life, a house strewn with rubbish, odors of dirty diapers, “stale food, of sweat, of unshifted filth,” her mother in a narcotic haze, a sinister drug dealer hanging around. A social worker coming to call notices “a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.”
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering over the council vacancy erupts into the open when a hacker publishes damaging disclosures on the parish council message board. Subsequent revelations have a ripple effect, a tsunami in the teacup that is the claustrophobic confines of Pagford.
Rowling is a better storyteller than she is a writer and the sometimes clunky phrases and confusing abundance of characters make for slow going at the start. (“The 23-year-old journalist ... had no idea that Barry’s once busy brain was now a heavy handful of spongy tissue on a metal tray in South West General.”)
But as the novel proceeds, it’s obvious that Rowling has carefully constructed the complicated web of relationships and withheld key details to maximize the suspense, whether she is gradually revealing the terrible story of Krystal’s mother’s life or sketching out the pathology of “Fats” Walls, whose determination to experience “authentic” life launches him toward Krystal with devastating consequences.
The alchemy here is certainly of a different kind than in the Potterverse. But it’s alchemy all the same, successfully keeping the reader engaged for more than 500 pages.
Jean Westmoore is The News’ longtime children’s book reviewer.