When JK Rowling was sketching out her thoughts and ideas concerning a certain boy-wizard-who-must-be-named, in cafes and coffee shops and trains, I suspect she was quietly taking note of the myriad characters milling around her, going about their everyday lives. Observing interactions between shopkeeper and customer, parent and child, the fledgling relationships of love-struck teenagers; taking note of subtle indications of like and dislike, contempt and admiration, disdain and respect. It’s this seemingly mundane but highly enjoyable practice of people-watching that is the precedent of her first post-Potter novel, peering into the lives and loathes of a cast of characters crippled by deceit, secrets, ulterior motives and little if any empathy for their neighbours, and even friends.
It all begins when parish councilor and all-round good sort Barry Fairbrother drops dead. His demise is the lynchpin for the unravelling of many of his circle of peers, their children and those who he could never possibly have comprehended his life would touch. This is the overwhelming arc of the story – one never knows how one’s actions will affect another person or people. Supposedly, if a butterfly flaps its wings in Vietnam it will cause a cyclone in Hawaii – if you or I pocket some small change from the Mass collection basket or spread a harmless white lie about a local nuisance, dire tragedy could be a consequence. It appears that not every action has an equal or opposite reaction. It’s a bleak and disheartening thought, not made much better by the portrayal of the vast amount of the characters as devious, self-serving morons, written by Rowling with despair, not a little judgement, and acerbic wit.
Take Howard Mollison; grossly obese delicatessen owner and head of the council, ego as big as his belly, and Shirley, his social climbing nit-wit of a wife. When hearing the news of Barry’s passing they are struck with only glee, a bothersome person from a working-class background has vacated his post and his plans for providing the worse off members of the community with better facilities and a glimmer of hope for the future are now teetering in the balance. The Mollisons are determined to have their solicitor son Miles, a man who grows more like his father with each passing day, fill the spot, so that their cosy middle-class bubble will not be popped. It’s like the gruesome Dursleys twenty years down the line, if the inevitable Potter comparisons are to be made, but with a much darker undertone, made all the more sinister by it’s grim realism. Then there’s Miles’s once-trophy-wife Samantha, bored and depressed now that her vanity business needs to close, slowly letting herself be consumed by increasing hate towards her in-laws and her husband; one of the only comic undertones of the book being her growing infatuation with one of the members of her teenage daughter’s favourite boyband.
Then there are the Jawandas, principally Parminder the GP matriarch and another member of the council, uptight and frustrated with trying to tolerate the pettiness of the village politics yet unable to tear herself away from it. Her surgeon husband is the envy of the wives of Pagford, their two eldest children are shining beacons of brightness and popularity, the youngest, Sukhvinder slips through life unnoticed by her high-achieving parents and siblings, and her classmates, bar bullies who force her into the darkest depths of despair. Other teenagers include recently arrived Gaia, the object of affection for Andrew, he who is repeatedly subjected to emotional and physical abuse by his live-wire father; Andrew’s sly best friend Fats, Sukhvinder’s tormentor and son of the vice-principal of the local Comprehensive and Krystal Weedon, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks (the so-called “Fields” a housing estate that Barry had been trying to improve and Howard and his cronies had been trying to remove from the jurisdiction of Pagford). Drawing yet another comparison to the wizarding world, it is the teenagers here who hold the power, they are the group who use their knowledge learned at school to attack and provoke, causing a tidal wave of consequences both serendipitous and awful. It is their parents who are on the receiving end of their wands – both Fats’ and Andrew’s fathers wish to fill the spot that once was Barry’s, both with different agendas, their sons with very different reasons for opposing them.
Like a twisted version of Midsummer Murders mixed with a David Lynch film, The Casual Vacancy delves into the lower reaches of the personalities we all know. It’s compelling as the reader seeing beyond the overbearing cheerfulness of Howard and finding a self-centered but curiously vapid man, the saccharine sweetness of Shirley being pulled back to expose a venomous and phony woman, one who volunteers at the hospital to tell people she volunteers, who bakes cakes for her neighbours so she can feel superiour to them. Rowling writes an abusive man, with his nonsense reasonings and triggers, with great skill but she perhaps falls down on the portrayal of his wife, painting her as merely weak and submissive rather than a true victim. It could also be said though that the narraters are unreliable, as each character is seen through the eyes of another and subtle differences are interesting to behold between the changing voices.
There are really shocking moments that do well to showcase the terrible rut that a person can be born into, in competition with the sweet and safe world the councillors wish to pretend they live in. Krystal Weedon, under-educated, naive, street-smart to a fault must take care of her baby brother while her mother repeatedly fails to wean herself off heroin – another mother, Gaia’s this time, is a new social worker on the block and it’s something of a revelation to see this desperate family through her eyes – sympathetic, not even repulsed, but frightened. Kay is a minor but well-rounded character, her work as a social worker showcases her constant empathy and sympathy for others, her pursuit of an impossible relationship belies her insecurity and loneliness. Her boyfriend is the impossibly drippy and selfish Gavin, suddenly in love with his dead best friend’s wife. One suspects it’s a subconscious ploy to wriggle his way out of a committed, if inevitably doomed, relationship.
The novel unearths the secrets of our deepest depths, and when reading it it’s hard not to wonder and examine how you must appear to various people on any given day. The utter lack of any self-awareness of most of the characters makes it easier to rest easy, but it’s no harm to examine oneself’s psyche now and again, just to be on the safe side. We don’t want any cyclones to befall Hawaii, after all.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald October 2012