When I announced that I was reading The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling, several people asked me to share my thought when I finished, so here you go!
There is a line in the third Harry Potter book where Sirius says to Harry, “The world isn’t divided into good people and death eaters.” A sentiment that cuts straight to the heart of our desire to herald one side as incorruptible saviors and turn the other into irredeemable tyrants. As we age into adulthood, we are forced to wrestle with the world as it truly is, vastly complicated and messy.
But I would argue that the Casual Vacancy makes that point much more strongly than the Harry Potter series ever did. The characters in her previous series tended to fall somewhat neatly into the good and evil categories (with some notable exceptions). But I found the kindness, greed, pomposity, love and selfishness displayed in the people of Pagford to be much more nuanced.
There are no unambiguously good people in that little English hamlet, and while they might at times wish for a Hero to vanquish evil, they, like those of us in the real world, must rely on broken people working within broken systems. And as in real life, many of her characters are simultaneously self-destructive and pitiable.
While many loved the fantastical world she painted at Hogwarts, I would argue that her greatest strength has always been her keen insights into the complicated incitants and motivations of human behavior. A strength she uses deftly to point out the desperate need for empathy and humility. In a world that enjoys painting broad strokes, laying blame, and ignoring inherent inequality, (particularly when it comes to discussions of poverty and drug addiction), Rowlings’ book is a gift that neither condemns nor acquits its characters.
There is a line early on when a mother says to her son, “You must accept the reality of other people.” Though they may be greedy, selfish, short-sighted, or weak, they have their own experiences and beliefs which have shaped them. You can not escape their humanness; they are not simply caricatures of your prejudices.
Rowling uses her characters’ numerous faults to bring searing social criticism through some thoroughly unlikable people, which has disappointed some critics. There is a belief among many readers that for a novel to be “good”, the story should be fun and the characters should be “relate-able” (read: likable). While Harry Potter certainly fit those constraints, The Casual Vacancy does not*. And I think that change gives it a raw and honest voice that is needed to address issues of marriage, sex, adolescence, fidelity, domestic violence, and addiction.
The novel is fiercely dark at times, and I found myself emotionally un-done by the tragic turn the novel ultimately takes, partly because the pain and injustice it portrays are all too real. This is not a story that offers neat conclusions. In contrast to Harry Potter’s epic that gave its heroes the happy ending they deserved, The Casual Vacancy refuses to tie up its narrative with a shiny bow. Instead it leaves the readers with painful questions that we must learn to answer ourselves.
*As John Green said about Holden in The Catcher in the Rye: “He isn’t the person you want to be or the person you want to be with. But he is the person you secretly know yourself to be.” I think that applies here, too.
A few notes:
1. There is one character painted as an undiminished saint: the man who dies in the first two pages. Another interesting social criticism.
2. David once accused HP of being absurdly unrealistic, because it is narrated entirely from the POV of a teenage boy, and doesn’t mention sex once in seven years. This book does not have that problem. This is not 50 Shades of Grey – none of the sex is meant to be titillating, as Rowling said in an interview “people have sex in this book, but nobody really enjoys it”. But if you don’t wish to read frank talk about human thought and action regarding sex, don’t read this book.
3. One of the most dislikable families in the book reminds me pointedly of the Dursleys. It’s like they moved from London to Pagford, and refer to Harry as their estranged daughter to avoid talking about him.
4. As some criticisms have said, there are A LOT of characters, and everyone’s related somehow to everyone else. I found them difficult to distinguish at first, but that didn’t last long. If you can manage it (I couldn’t), read the first section of the book in one sitting; I think it would help solidify the individual relationships and characters.
5. The last quarter of the book is the very best part. I enjoyed reading the whole thing, but I couldn’t put it down when I got near the end.