Book review: The Casual Vacancy, JK's adult fiction debut
The Casual Vacancy
Speaking on the eve of the publication of The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling pondered the possibility that it would receive a critical drubbing.
"The worst that can happen is that everyone says, 'Well that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids'," she reflected.
"So, yeah, I'll put it out there, and if everyone says, 'Well that's shockingly bad - back to wizards with you,' then obviously I won't be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live."
Rowling's first book written for an adult audience was always a rather contradictory prospect: a very public secret, ambitious, yet, according to the author herself, written without any real ambition. She hardly needs the money nor, by her own assertion, the public recognition.
But if the response may have been a source of some relief, the worst did not happen. In fact, Sherryl Connelly of the New York Daily News stated categorically that this book "is not dreadful". Nevertheless, there can't have been many balloons blown up in the Rowling household last week.
Because while nobody said it was terrible, an awful lot said it was "dull". Given the paucity of information prior to publication, none may have been able to put a shape to their expectations. But, having read the book most could tell you that whatever they were, The Casual Vacancy did not meet them.
Michiko Kakutuni of The New York Times found "no magic in this book - in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery". The Guardian's Theo Talt pointed to the problem that "all the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead".
There have been exceptions - notably Melvyn Bragg's gushing write up in The Observer.
Lord Bragg launched into his review with the words, "This is a wonderful novel", and gabbled through a crescendo of compliments. According to Lord Bragg, this fiction is on a par with "Conan Doyle, PD James and RL Stevenson" - quite when Robert Louis Stevenson took to truncating his name in posthumous homage to JK Rowling is unclear.
Lord Bragg considered The Casual Vacancy "hugely impressive". Well, at 503 pages long, it is certainly huge. Truth be told no amount of bluster from Lord Bragg can drown out the faint peal of alarm bells inspired by publisher Little, Brown's own prosaic prelude that this is "A Big Novel About A Small Town".
The small town in question is the fictional Pagford – a West Country hamlet that seems to owe its existence not so much to town planners as to a meeting of Radio 4 scriptwriters.
There is the golf club with its restaurant, "The Birdie", there is the "Copper Kettle" restaurant, the delicatessen, the rows of Victorian cottages and grander homes, the exquisite Queen Anne mansion now fallen to ruins and, across in neighbouring Yarvil, there is The Fields, a squalid rural housing estate scarred by drug abuse, petty crime and prostitution.
It and its inhabitants are viewed with disdain by Pagford's gentle folk, who have increasingly shouldered the burden of paying for The Fields and its feckless residents.
The narrative is set in motion by the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor, who is broadly sympathetic to The Fields' occupants. His demise creates the casual vacancy of the title, which various self-interested Pagford citizens make a bid to fill in the election that follows.
The problem is that, from the very outset, Rowling's "real world" depiction is far less convincing, far less truthful and far less real than the richly imagined magical realms which made her famous.
Rowling herself described the book as "very English" - that might go some way towards explaining why American critics have been more brutal than their British counterparts who have, on the whole, damned with faint praise rather than damned entirely.
But however passionate Rowling may have felt in writing Pagford and its inhabitants - she has described the sensation as "a rush of adrenaline … chemical" - that physicality is lost somewhere between idea and its expression. Instead of a living, breathing environment, we are presented with a sort of generic version of a provincial English town. Its poverty is predictable and necessary - rural squalor as opposed to inner-city slums - and its chattering classes are broad-brushstroke creations.
Undoubtedly, Rowling is a great storyteller - the Harry Potter books were, after all, rollicking tales spread over an artfully managed, sprawling landscape - but the central issue with this book is that there is no great story to tell. In its absence, Rowling's shortcomings as a writer begin to bleed though.
Andrew Losowsky at The Huffington Post points out, "Some sequences feel a few drafts short of being ready." He balances this with the observation that "others are written with a fluency and beauty that suggest that there could be more and better works to come from Rowling's pen". But those moments of "fluency and beauty" could equally be viewed as suggesting that this book could have been better had it been more brutally edited.
The Casual Vacancy is a story of small lives and inward-turning ambition. It needs skilful writing rather than impressive plotting.
Yet, as we soldier through each character's reaction to Fairbrother's death, there is an inescapable feeling that we've seen them all before.
Each and every one has a tip-of-the-tongue familiarity to them - superficially recognisable, yet their truth eludes us because, ultimately, as the narrative progresses, we come to realise their substance simply does not exist.
JK Rowling has said that this is a book about class - a subject matter which, she notes, is "a rich seam".
"The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash, like porridge," she has said. "The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people."
What a shame then, that diversity escapes Rowling too.
Here we have a string of middle-class characters, each less appealing than the last. The author's judgement is relentless, converting black humour into a sort of moralistic bludgeoning: "Ruth Price's pity flowed most freely and sincerely for those whom she believed to be like herself."
"Shirley's … instincts about people were finely honed in one direction only, like a dog that has been trained to sniff out narcotics. She was perennially aquiver to detect condescension.
"Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy … to where cash was trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it."
They "froth" with excitement, they "thrill" to the notion of condemnation.
Bit by bit, the middle-class inhabitants of Pagford are shown to be faux creatures of their own creation, morally bankrupt and hideously judgemental. There is not a single likeable quality (never mind character) in any of the burghers of Pagford. And without that tension, without the complexity that allows characters to ring true, the book's brittle black comedy quickly gives way to something monotone and arch.
Meanwhile, the impoverished state of The Fields' dwellers - drug addict Terri Weedon and her daughter Krystal and three-year-old son Robbie - has its roots in a predictable and vaguely sketched backstory of abuse, narcotics and despair.
Before Krystal was born there were other children - lost into the care of social services - there were other partners, there was a "pre-life doused in blood, fury and darkness".
It is quite clear that Rowling cares far more deeply for Krystal and her drug-ravaged mother, the quiet despair of their situation, than she does for their rather repugnant "social betters".
One of the most poignant sections of the book is a description of Krystal's mother, Terri, as a little girl - 11 years old and in hospital after suffering horrific abuse at the hands of her father: "Sometimes Terri thought that those weeks in hospital had been the happiest of her life, even with the pain. It had been so safe, and people had been so kind to her and looked after her."
Meanwhile, in Krystal herself, Rowling comes closest to creating a true and tragic figure. But still, she never quite manages to lift her out of the quagmire of social stereotype. Some of the most moving works of literature derive their power from taut depictions of interior lives - longing, failure, loss, love, grief and hope - none of these need be the stuff of sweeping narratives. But they need to be sincere. They need to be true.
JK Rowling may have been quite sincere when she said that she did not feel the need to prove anything in writing this book. After all, nothing in The Casual Vacancy can diminish her achievements as a writer. But there is nothing here that adds either to her standing as a writer nor to the social debate with which she attempts to engage.
Put simply, we don't want to spend much time in these characters' company, and we don't get to know them any better for the time that we do. Still, the slow pace of the narrative means that we have little choice but to endure them if we are to get to the point where anything very much happens.
As it is, the results of the election come and go, and with little real impact. Amid a narrative that contains death, abuse, infidelity and even murderous intentions, the results of the parish council elections should perhaps be overshadowed.
Only they are not, because there isn't enough light and shade for shadow to fall in this book. Instead, they just don't seem to matter.
Because, however manifold and adult the themes, we are left feeling that nothing very much has happened in this book. And that there is nothing much to conclude beyond the fact that The Casual Vacancy is a big novel about a small town.
Laura Collins is a senior features writer at The National.