THIS is the time of year when I devote myself to a huge book, and in 2013 it’s huge not only in size (503 pages) but also in sales. Despite its dull title, The Casual Vacancy soared into mega-seller status as easily as Harry Potter’s broomstick – and, of course, it was the Potter success that propelled it.
Was it worth the hype? Does J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults live up to expectations? Can she still work her magic without magic, as it were? On the whole, the answer from critics has been a cautious ”Yes”, which encouraged me to give it a go. I was also impressed by Rowling’s performance in various interviews to publicise the book’s release. She seemed so modest, so down-to-earth, passionate about her work but also nervous about how it would be received. Like any author, in fact. Not some precious superstar.
The first hump to get over was Rowling’s clunky prose. Bad writing is no bar to success, unfortunately, but, even so, it was a teeth-gritting experience to read sentences such as: ”Then pain sliced through his brain like a demolition ball.” The schoolmarm in me tut-tutted: demolition balls do not slice. I resolved to be less critical, to just get on with reading the story. And yes, once the story lumbered into gear, I began to enjoy the ride.
The Casual Vacancy has been frequently likened to Middlemarch, which is not a fair comparison, as Rowling is no George Eliot (nor is just about any other contemporary writer).
But its ambition is similarly astonishing: to show us a microcosm of Britain through the inhabitants of Pagford, a small picture-postcard town riven by class divides, snobbery and hunger for power; plagued with marital, generational and racial conflict; haunted by dysfunction and fear and hate. Pagford people at their worst make Lord Voldemort look like quite a benign chap.
A challenging and wonderful theme, then, and there’s no doubting Rowling’s passion, or where her sympathies lie: firmly with the underdog. In this respect she’s more like Dickens or Zola. And The Casual Vacancy is also like a 19th-century novel, because it offers us a substantial read.
Too substantial, in some ways. I could have done with fewer characters, fewer subplots, fewer long exchanges of banal dialogue. I wanted to focus on the drama, the excitement of conflict (there’s plenty of that), and I wanted to care about everyone. As it was, I cared about very few.
Rowling’s best creation is the cheeky Krystal, a teenager from the wrong side of the Pagford tracks, fierce and resilient and caring, in spite of everything fate throws at her, including a junkie mother.
Other characters are intriguing, notably a teenage boy who tries to cope with trauma by gradually cutting off his ability to feel for anyone else, and a school principal plagued by chronic terror.
There’s some real insight and empathy here for those living lives of quiet or loud desperation.
But alas, Rowling can’t resist the broad-brush caricature: fat jolly baddies on the council; sexed-up housewives; bitchy mothers-in-law lurking behind the pretty scenery. It all screams Sunday-night telly on the ABC, and I’m not surprised to learn there’s already a TV series in the pipeline.
Ultimately, The Casual Vacancy stays true to its dark roots and resists the temptation to go all cutesy and cosy on us: it’s about as feel-good as a massacre. I wish it had been shorter, more streamlined, more focused: but I’m still glad I read it. The best bits are tough and true.
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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.