Thoughts: The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling

I think this is what the cool kids call “late to the party”. We’ve had this on the shelf for a while and ever since we got it I’ve been meaning to read it. And as Spuggy got to the end of the book he was reading on the Kindle, I thought I may as well end my off-list detour with a bang. Crazy spoilers lie within. I’m warning you, if you want to read this book, don’t read my aimless ramblings on it.

So, I remember when this came out, and there was a lot of talk about how it was quite a reactionary book, in the sense that it seemed to be pushing very hard against Rowling’s typecasting as “author of epic but generally good-hearted children’s wizard books”. And having read it… yes, I absolutely see where that was coming from. I’m a bit annoyed at myself for not having read any of the Cormoran Strikes to see how they compare in terms of… let’s call it grimness. Just to see if The Casual Vacancy was a sort of exaggerated reaction and has settled down, or if this is a style Rowling is genuinely comfortable in. That said, crime thrillers are emphatically not my thing, so it’s not really out of character for me to not have read them, and I might never. I don’t mind a murder mystery or two, but I don’t really read for vicious murders and stress.

The Casual Vacancy is really uncomfortably grim for the most part. Like, actively uncomfortably, and I think it was a deliberate choice. I think Rowling went right for the things we prefer not to think about – kids from irreparably broken homes who don’t respond with gratitude to kindness, the private frustrations of people living with people with mental illnesses, men who derail the lives of others through their own inability to take responsibility, men who hit women and the women who stay with them, minorities in small towns who don’t smile politely, ugly duckling girls who might not be rewarded with beauty at the end of it all, a hundred little meannesses without motive.

Plotwise and themewise it’s very much a piece of social fiction, I think, and I wonder if this is how people felt reading something like Dickens or Gaskell or Zola contemporaneously. Because we can read Gaskell today and say, well, of course workers can’t live like that, and of course it’s terrible to starve people because they won’t work for nothing. We can read Dickens, and say, I dunno*, of course you shouldn’t make kiddies be chimney sweeps, that’s shocking. But at the time these books were pretty radical. And hopefully one day in the future people will read The Casual Vacancy and say, well of course you shouldn’t sweep undesirable people under the carpet, of course you should fund programmes that help people out of cycles of addiction and make sure their children have better childhoods than their parents did.

There’s one particularly huge and glaring difference between The Casual Vacancy and Victorian social fiction, of course, which is that we don’t hold ideas of “the deserving poor” (or “deserving minorities”, for that matter) to be progressive modes of thought anymore. If you go down that road, then who gets to choose and what makes them so holy? Which is something that Rowling touches on a few times in The Casual Vacancy. Rowling makes good on exploding the “deserving poor” myth by making the case for the council estate to remain part of the middle-class chocolate-box village revolve around a notorious local family of loud, quickly-reproducing junkies, unknown dads, delinquents and neglectful parents.

It says a lot about how awful Rowling makes her cast that the Weedon family comprise some of the most sympathetic characters in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a case of deliberately painting the “nice” characters as cartoonishly bad for this very reason, I think a lot of it might just be my own personal preferences and strong unpreferences in human personalities. A lot of the terrible characters that had my stomach sinking at the beginning of the book do become more sympathetic as we learn more about their backstory and just spend more time in their presence and in their heads, but it’s hard to shake off the thought that Rowling went for the very worst and most uncomfortable things she could think of to make this extra hard. Things that spring to mind immediately are Fats’s sociopathic teenage pretensions and total unlikeability (I’ve never wanted to push a teenager down some stairs before reading this book! It wasn’t upsetting, just, ugh, what a sheltered little edgelord), Colin’s OCD-induced paranoias about what if he accidentally molested a child and didn’t realise it (I totally get this one, because if you were a headteacher and your brain wanted to make you worry about the worst thing you could ever do then this is absolutely what it would be, but it was really upsetting to read about), and Samantha’s weird sexual fantasies about banging a member of Definitely Not One Direction (one of the fantasies involved a pedalo and I just don’t know what to say. This was definitely upsetting).

I’m not sure if we were supposed to sympathise with every character by the end. I certainly didn’t.

But anyway.

The plot moves slowly, but you hardly realise because it’s so densely woven, each character having a part in multiple other lives as well as their own. I didn’t realise just how slowly it was moving until the funeral of the character who dies in the prologue, but nothing really felt like filler, and I was turning the pages as quickly as if it was a thriller. The setting was pretty great, a perfect location to show off government policy and its consequences in a microcosm that didn’t feel artificial. The characters are totally three-dimensional, and Rowling’s eye for detail and character dynamic and the unspoken things between people was fantastic, with a couple of slips here and there.

Because, yes, let’s just say it: Rowling’s prose style (at least at the Casual Vacancy stage of her career) is relatively unchanged from the Harry Potter books. It’s still plain and easy to read (it would have felt a bit rude to make a story like this dense and difficult, to be honest) and sometimes outright clumsy. There were a couple of sentences I had to read a couple of times to decide whether they were just weird grammar or mistakes (I think they were mistakes, though whether editorial or typographical I’m still not sure) and mixed metaphors. There were a couple of times where she ruined a moment by telling us something she’d just elegantly shown, and one particular instance of telling us a character’s life revolved around music, when he’d never listened to anything before and never did afterwards, who never even spared a thought for music throughout the whole rest of the book. It felt like a dropped thread from an earlier draft.

My other problem with the writing itself was the accents. My general advice to people asking how to write accents, and my preferences in reading accents, is no, don’t, just stop. And this is why! Because in this small West Country village and adjoining council estate, we’re expected to believe that only the working class members speak with an accent. This is nonsense, of course; everyone speaks with an accent and everyone in this village (apart from characters who came from London, Birmingham and The Upper Echelons of Society) will speak with the same accent. It’s hugely jarring when Krystal Weedon or her family open their mouths and speak in apostrophes, and it’s even more jarring because in all other respects, Rowling’s narrator is scrupulously neutral and fair. Everything is described either blandly or through the perspective of the viewpoint character – whether it’s the Weedons’ filthy house or the behaviour of an awful character or what – except for the accents. Dialogue is character at its purest, but the way dialogue is written is the author at their purest. All those choices. Who drops their haitches and who says “ain’t” and who pronounces every “t” and “ing” with crystal clarity. Rowling’s choice here sets the working class characters as Other from the get-go, because the narrative is written in standard English and the middle classes all speak in that exact way as well, so they’re aligned with the default.

There are a couple of ways to avoid this. One is to write the middle class accents phonetically as well, because fair’s fair. Another is to write Krystal Weedon’s dialogue in standard English when in her perspective and Other the others, and vice versa. I wouldn’t expect either of these from Rowling because that sort of experimentation isn’t really her style as I understand it; the words are a means to the plot. So what I’d suggest, if my opinion was worth anything and I’d been there at the time, is to write everything out using standard spelling and grammar and let the word choice and syntax speak for itself. Obviously words like “ain’t”, where it’s the word and not the pronunciation that’s different, would still appear, but I think it would work better. As it was, having things like “don'” instead of “don’t” (do people usually pronounce that “t” so strongly that it would be missed?) and “mist” instead of “missed” (they’re homophones, oh my god, they’re homophones, they’re pronounced the same, there’s no need to do this!!!) just seemed to exist to make the Weedons look a bit thick, which was at odds with the whole rest of the novel.

Wow, I have rambled on a lot and still not said everything I could say. The book doesn’t so much end as stop, with many things left unresolved and more uncertainty ahead. But that’s how life goes. One parish council election isn’t going to save the world, or herald a new stability, as though parish councillors were electrons in an atom. The fights continue, the circumstances change, adapt or die. But we do get sort of closures on our characters, as they get what they want, lose their gambles or come to terms with their struggles, and everything in between. I found it telling that at the end, the only characters who felt as though they hadn’t done enough to prevent the climactic tragedy were the ones who had done all they could. Sad and something I’ve seen a lot of in the real world. The people who care continue to care, and those who don’t continue not to. But there are rays of hope and signs of change. The new parish council line-up is one not envisioned by either side, and though everyone spends a lot of the book thinking that Barry’s death put an end to all his good works and rendered them meaningless, we see that this isn’t the case.

Barry’s hard work with the rowing team changed Krystal, and Sukhvinder, and the people around them. Without the rowing team, Krystal and Sukhvinder would never have been friends, a friendship that introduced small but fundamental changes in the two of them. Even with him dead and the rowing team gone and then Krystal dead in the worst of all possible circumstances, what he did continues to resonate, in an oar-shaped floral arrangement at a funeral, in Sukhvinder’s courage, in a hundred little changed courses.

Consequences are a strong, repeating thread in the book. In a novel with a large cast in a small town, when everyone rubs up against everyone else you’d expect this to be the case. It’s shown off most obviously in the four posts from Barry Fairbrother’s Ghost, each one from (or using the information from) a child to lay bare the secrets of a parent. Children are the most visible personifications of consequences. But these children aren’t just plot devices – their actions have consequences too, and they learn lessons as hard as the adults in the story, and maybe they’ll make good use of their longer time to deal with them, or maybe they’ll find themselves one day where their parents are now. Life never stops, and nothing is inconsequential.

A promise, or a threat?

*I promise I’ll read Dickens one day

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