On the one hand; on the other hand – not the most elaborate or ambitious of opening constructions but one that certainly sets the tone for what follows. On the one hand she’s a writer about whom people get pretty damn snooty which makes me want to defend her; on the other, she has sold many millions of books and is as rich as Croesus so does she really need a wussy blogger rising to her defence? Probably not. Being as rich as Croesus, though, she could very easily become the person she appears to be in her author photograph and write tales of Conservative gentlefolk having to deal with dreadful oinks (a la Alan Hollinghurst – BOOM!); it is to her credit that her first novel for adults at least tries to engage with the ills of the world in a way that I still (probably wrongly) feel that novels should.
What we have here is an ensemble piece, a largely character driven semi-literary attempt at a cross-section of society within a small rural town. ‘The casual vacancy’ of the title refers to the state that opens up following the death of a popular local councillor in the opening chapter, after which various other councillors and local busybodies jockey to promote their own interests and appoint a friendly replacement more likely to support their own divergent or divisive interests. Pagford, the fictional town in which The Casual Vacancy is set, borders an estate of sorts, the kind of estate you find all over the country, full of rough, desperate sorts that more comfortable sorts take issue with. A boundary change some years previously gifted the Fields, as the rough estate in question is known, to Pagford – and in the intervening years half of the council have been fighting to lose the Fields while the other half do all in their power to help them.
There are about a dozen principals in The Casual Vacancy, from Howard Millinson and his wife who run the local delicatessen and consider themselves big cheeses, via various single parent social workers, struggling young businesswomen, failing teachers, bad tempered doctors and awkward solicitors to the Weedons, immigrants from Shameless, bringing the whole area down. Switching viewpoints chapter to chapter (and, occasionally, whisper it, Will Self-like between paragraphs), we gather a sense of the issues affecting the various characters – from young Andrew Price’s infatuation with Gaia, the hot new girl at school, to Samantha Mollinson’s growing dissatisfaction with her marriage to Howard’s son Miles, from social worker Kay’s conflicts over doing a good job whilst juggling an off-off relation with local solicitor Gav (who is himself nursing a crush on the widow of the recently deceased councillor) to Krystal Weedon’s attempts to keep her mum off the smack and look after her younger brother – threads that gradually come to be woven about the central premise of what will happen to the Fields and the nearby drug rehabilitation centre if Howard and his cronies have their way.
What’s good? Well, undoubtedly there is a certain amount of audaciousness in trying to bring a global audience of many, many millions along what amounts to a particularly English by-lane. Ditto the fair amount of swearing and sex involved. Parents really might want to vet this before giving into their twelve or thirteen year old’s repeated ‘please Dad please can I can I can I?’s. The twisting and turning of so many characters requires skill and again she maintains the level of anticipation she creates throughout most of its 500 and odd pages. But the novel is problematic and it’s problematic both as a standalone book and as a book that sits within the body of her other work. The main problem lies with the fact that it’s a little humourless. If you look at, say, Charlotte Corey’s The Guest (an excellent novel about what happens in a small village riven by a lottery win) or Ian Sansom’s equally excellent Ring Road, we follow a group of randoms, we glimpse the intimate workings of their lives, through sorrow and tragedy but, importantly, with humour. The Casual Vacancy is a little earnest. Also (and in some senses this is curious and in others it isn’t): it feels like a first novel. There are definitely times when The Casual Vacancy suffers from the first novel habit of ‘chuck it all in, some of it will stick!’ The novel adopts issues like a well-meaning aunt (cyber bullying, self-harm etc) but places them within such a cosy milieu it’s as if Jimmy McGovern has been asked to script a Vicar of Dibley special. Perhaps most crucially the characters fulfil a sort of metonymy, standing in for vast swathes of the debate – so the Weedons represent the poor, the Mollinson’s distant aristocratic friends the rich and everyone else various shades in-between – which allows Rowling, arguably to get away with a climax that is neither in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or something stranger, subtler, more alarming altogether (there are neither riots nor revolutions within The Casual Vacancy, resolution is reached in much the same way as it is within the kinds of drama serials shown by ITV on a Monday night).
Because The Casual Vacancy is so different, such a departure, from the books upon which Rowling has made her name, it’s difficult to judge whether this is in fact a peculiar sidestep or the sign of what is to come. As it is, there is certainly bravery here, in writing what amounts to a political book at a time when other novelists are looking to their pasts (Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, take note) and Governments are getting away with murder. I just can’t help but feel that The Casual Vacancy is a piece of shortbread when it could have been something unusual served up by Heston Blumenthal.
Any Cop?: Not the failure that many people expected, certainly, but neither is it the novel likely to have millions and millions of adults queuing outside Waterstone’s at midnight for her next one either.