At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.
It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.
Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.
Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.