Friday, September 28, 2012

The Casual Vacancy: a radical departure for Rowling

First, this is not Harry Potter. Those hoping for a dusting of Dumbledore, a sprinkling of Snape, or even a hint of a Horcrux, will be disappointed. Instead this is a closely examined portrayal of a typical - perhaps mythical - English village, and the consequences that follow on from the death of local councillor Barry Fairbrother.
The author J K Rowling has said it is a very personal book, a book she "needed to write": it is also a profoundly political novel, surprising and controversial. It is radical departure for the writer, and will redefine her image. In short, it is about living under the Coalition, with Voldemort recast as the "Big Society". Some will call it a satire but it is not comic. The final chapters left me cold, and I don't mean that as a criticism.

The stage is small, deliberately so. All of the action takes place in the little town of Pagford where, as one character remarks, "everyone truly did know everyone". But small the imagination is not. Rowling has packed her first book for adults with a troupe of characters and a narrative that is deeply complex and intertwined. Nothing happens without a consequence, a message that is central to Rowling's novelistic manifesto.
The literal "vacancy" of the novel's title is provided by Fairbrother, a local parish councillor, who lasts all of three pages before he is not-so-casually shuffled off the stage. Yet Fairbrother casts a long shadow
over the remaining 500 pages: he is the focal point of the book and his absence provides the void from which all the remaining characters suffer. He is also the conduit between Pagford and the looming menace of The Fields, a council estate that the residents of Pagford are attempting to pass off to the larger conurbation of Yarvil. In Swiftian fashion, the Pagfordians are said to fear the encroaching Yarvils, with The Fields the physical manifestation of that menace.

It is of course impossible to think of the new book without reference to the children's titles. This is not a Harry Potter but it is a J K Rowling. The writing is rich and colourful and at times luxuriant, and, yes, occasionally it is clumsy. The backdrop of the book will be familiar too, two worlds colliding and competing for prominence, with Fairbrother cast as a lost stabilizing force. Death overshadows this book, as it did all seven of the Potter novels.
Unlike Potter though there is no redemption, no overarching ministry of magic to marshal the world into some kind of order: the vacancy of that is another of Rowling's themes. The denizens of Pagford are falling apart, and fallen apart. They become victims of malicious online gossip, while averting their gazes from the wider tragedies among them. In Rowling's bleak vision, none of them are guiltless.

Rowling once again shows her deftness at introducing even minor players with substance: it has been remarked of the Harry Potter novels that Rowling knew exactly what her people were doing even when they were off-page (a vision now being explored through Pottermore) and one can imagine a similar
attention to detail at work here. In fact, it is clear from the many digressions that crop up within the book that there are back stories a-plenty. Some of the characters will be vaguely familiar to Pottermaniacs:
one can see the younger Bellatrix Lestrange in the Vicky Pollard character, the improbably named Krystal Weedon; Fats Wall could have been Vincent Crabb in another world; with Andrew Price a Weasley. But in truth, the overlaps are slight - if they came out of the world of Potter, these versions have
been given a reality check by Rowling's pen.
The influences are not hard to fathom. Rowling has written a excoriating critique of English life, channelling Charles Dickens, David Cameron, Charlotte Bronte, and Danny Boyle. Although the latter's Olympics opening ceremony would have come too late to colour this book, there is an overlapping of visions. For Boyle, Britain was a developing industrialized landscape made out of clay and grass, blessed by achievers from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to the founders of the NHS. For Rowling it is a claustrophobic congregation caught in a callous disregard for their own community needs, perhaps only dimly aware that their connectivity is what could make them functional - if only they had a care.

How the book will sell is a moot point. It is an important book that could speak to many communities, and not just in Britain. It is unclassifiable, not quite literary enough to sit within that canon, but not a genre book
either. It could also prove to be incredibly controversial. On the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme (26th September), Rowling said the book tackled broad themes which had impacted her life, such as poverty. "There is a whiff of the early 90s, how these issues are being discussed right now, and it is
painfully familiar to me. In hard times the desire to stigmatise and to blame seems to become ever stronger." There is no question, from reading the book, who she blames for that and it is hard to imagine members
of the current Coalition reading it without a grimace.
Rowling has written a grand novel about a little community where David Cameron's sop of the Big Society has been found out: no casual vacancy this, but a damning one. It is a very brave book, and one that will alter people's perceptions of her as a writer.

And further review at The Daily Beast - a US take on it.

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