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JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy: Big problems in Little England

Review: However manifold and adult the themes, we are left feeling that nothing very much has happened in this book, writes Laura Collins.

The Casual Vacancy is a story of small lives and inward turning ambition.
The Casual Vacancy is a story of small lives and inward turning ambition.

The Casual Vacancy
JK Rowling
Little, Brown

When the most confident description that a book's own publishers can come up with is that it is "big", then it doesn't take especially sharp hearing to detect the faint peel of alarm bells.

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling's first book written for an adult audience. It is, as Little, Brown proudly asserts on the inside cover, "A Big Novel About A Small Town."

Well, at 503 pages long, their assessment of scale cannot be faulted.

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", and it is in the sense that Pagford is 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.

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 quite rightly 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.

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 for The National