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The Casual Vacancy

Johanna Derry

JK Rowling
Little, Brown, 516pp

Barry Fairbrother is dead. He is dead by the end of the first chapter. No messing around there then. On Pagford Parish Council his sudden demise leaves the eponymous casual vacancy of J K Rowling's first outing as a non-children's, non-fantasy (but probably not non-bestselling) author.
Pagford is a stereotypical middle English village, separated from the nearby town of Yarvil and all the evils it represents by a hill, and a housing estate called the Fields. By a twist of history, the Fields with its unsightly residents and drug rehab centre belongs to the picture-postcard-perfect Pagford rather than to Yarvil. Barry Fairbrother was an advocate for the Fields. His opponent on the council, Howard Mollison, its worst critic. So with Barry's death, a whole stew of petty rivalries within the council, and then between families, and then within families, bubbles up and begin to play themselves out to a tragic conclusion.

It's a good plot. The interplay between characters with their petty concerns, anxieties, and small town ambitions weaves a tight storyline that works as a powerful engine to move you through what is a fairly hefty book. I was prepared to be cynical but I'll confess by the end of chapter four, by which point Rowling has used all of the 'worst' swearwords in the English language (did she need to get them out of her system? Is she proving that this is not for kids?), I was hooked.

The action centres around a series of British stereotypes, which also isn't necessarily a bad idea. After all it worked for Jane Austen, right? There are Howard and Shirley and their son and his wife, Miles and Samantha - small town, slightly pompous politicians, big fish in a small pond. There are the Parminders, Sikh doctors with two stellar children and a third daughter, Sukhvinder, who is failing to live up to expectations. Simon Page takes backhanders at work and shows his wife the back of his hand. His son Andrew is gawky and has raging acne (could there be a lazier description of teenaged boy?). The Weedons are a family from the Fields: Terri, the mother with lots of children of various absent fathers, struggles to keep on the methadone and off the real stuff; dirty-nappied little boy Robbie, and daughter Krystal who battles to keep her little family together and the social workers away. So on and so forth. Across the board, the characters ally themselves into factions, alliances, friendships and allegiances along the lines of grievances, businesses, and relationships which pit children against parents, and neighbour against neighbour, with arguments and pranks that stir the pot of trouble that's brewing throughout the story. Krystal becomes the touchpoint for the debate about who takes responsibility for the Fields - the pawn who will become the inevitable victim of fate, both vilified and sanctified to suit the personal agendas of the different characters.

The problem with basing your characters on caricatures of middle England is that they're all too familiar to be interesting. You really have to be as good as Jane Austen to pull it off. The characters start as types that make you nod and think 'Oh yes, I know someone like that,' but they don't move anywhere. I kept waiting to be shocked or to discover they weren't as predictable as I had thought. But that moment never came. All the characters played their roles immaculately till the end, doing nothing that made me feel empathy, sadness, awe or, well, anything really. The story is good, but the characters fail it. About halfway through I knew how the story would end, and when I turned the last page, at least I gained the small satisfaction of the fact that I'd got it right.

It's a shame because if Rowling had been more sophisticated in her characterisation she could have been a lot more provocative. The story highlights how overly concerned we can be with our own small little lives, and yet how collectively we are responsible for terrible tragedies that happen within our communities, whether we know the people concerned or not. The decisions we make within our families, our schools, our workplaces, our local councils and so on have a ripple effect, that in this instance ends with the deaths of two of the characters. It could have been achingly tragic, and had the potential to be a really heart-wrenching satire. Sadly, it falls short.

It also bothered me that Rowling chose to write this book under her own name. I understand why she wanted to continue writing, and create something entirely different from the Harry Potter series. It's not her fault the franchise is the raging success it is, and she feels she has more to offer. Fair enough. But it's not as if she needs to trade on her name for financial reasons. Why not release the book under a pseudonym and have it judged on its own merits, than on in the context of being written by one of the most successful authors of all time? Wasn't she curious to know what people really think of her writing, aside from the hype?

So I tried to detach her name from my brain while I was reading it, to be fair to her. My conclusion was that it would make a decent addition to Richard and Judy's book list, but could have been a lot more.

Johanna Derry