Casting her spell on the dark side

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

FICTION: The Casual Vacancy,By JK Rowling, Little, Brown, 503pp. £20

ONE OFTEN HEARS of actors, released from the confines of network television to cable, who cry freedom at the lack of restraints put on them in their new home. Finally, they can explore darker subject matter, they can curse, they can take their clothes off. Perhaps JK Rowling felt a similar sense of liberation at graduating from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A novelist thrives on new ideas, and Rowling spent so many years telling one story, albeit an enormously popular and brilliantly crafted one, that it must have been thrilling to begin something new, something for adults, and to explore subjects previously inappropriate for her audience.

The Casual Vacancy takes middle England as its territory and a population of small-town, small-minded people for its cast. Opening with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor, Rowling introduces an eclectic group of characters, some vying for his seat, some hoping to further their agendas by the promotion of others, and some who live in fear and dread that their loved ones might actually top the ballot.

Foremost among them is Howard Mollison, an obese delicatessen owner, who wants his son Miles to be elected, much to the despair of Miles’s wife, Samantha; the second candidate is deputy headmaster Colin Wall, whose inner traumas are slowly revealed; the last is Simon Price, a wife-beater and abuser of his sons, who sees the council as his way to become rich through back-handers. Despite the fact that the election forms the basis of the story, it gradually becomes less important; it’s people, not politics, that matter here. Indeed, when the victor is finally announced, it’s almost as an aside.

The novel begins with light-hearted but perceptive observations about the social-climbing, status-obsessed English middle classes, but the laughs soon disappear; by the time we meet Krystle, the teenage daughter of a heroin addict, we realise that we are stepping into darker territory, while the scenes that depict Simon’s horrific bullying of his family are the best writing of this sort since Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors. As with that novel, the writing is controlled and credible, with the tension ratcheted high, never slipping into melodrama.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rowling’s most interesting characters are the young people, but these are not the clever, resourceful, good-hearted children of her previous novels; these are nervous, frightened teenagers, riddled with self-hatred and anxiety, traumatised by bullying parents, disgusted by affectionate ones, forced into premature adulthood by drug-addicted mothers. They lash out, they cyberbully, they self-harm, they lust and are lusted after. They have only one place of comfort and safety: their bedrooms, before the glow of the computer screen or the urgency of a razor blade. This is a novel in which children live in fear of their parents, and parents dread the mood swings of their offspring. It is a book about parenting like no other I have read.

The most interesting character is Andrew Price, the acne-ridden son of Simon, whose desperate, aching love for the unattainable Gaia is heartbreaking in its familiarity. He is a brilliant creation, filled with loathing for his terrifying father but as yet lacking the necessary skills to challenge him. (Should Rowling ever decide to revisit this territory, it is surely the character of Andrew, or his younger brother Paul, a tremulous presence, whose future story should be told.)

Alongside him stands his best friend, Fats Wall, as dark as Andrew is bright, a sadistic, self-centred aggressor who uses wit as his weapon but who wields his missile with a cruelty that gradually reveals his own demons. For JK Rowling, of all people, to describe the young as “devoid of workaday morals; they lied, misbehaved and cheated routinely, and yet their fury when wrongly accused was limitless and genuine”, is as unexpected as it is subversive.

Throughout the novel, Rowling proves once again what a brilliant storyteller she is and develops her skills of fine characterisation. Alongside this there is often some magnificent writing. Satellite dishes are “turned to the skies like the denuded ovules of grim metal flowers”. Krystle’s “slow passage up the school had resembled the passage of a goat through the body of a boa constrictor, being highly visible and uncomfortable for both parties concerned”.

By the end, the mask that each character wears has dropped; they suffer health shocks or engage in behaviour that suggests the onset of mental breakdowns. It would take a hard heart and a cynical mind not to be moved by the novel’s powerful and unexpected ending, its brilliant closing sentence, and the author’s bravery in refusing to tie everyone’s story up in a neat bow, leaving the reader to wonder whether these tormented, brutalised and selfish people can ever find happiness.

JK Rowling will no doubt go on to write more novels for children, but it would be a shame if she allowed herself to become submerged in another long sequence when she has so much to offer an adult readership too. The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant novel: entertaining, intelligent, moving, passionate and hard-hitting; touching on familiar subjects but approaching them with great originality and skill. Moreover, it’s unputdownable and continues a grand tradition of English novels from Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford to Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, in which the state of a nation is depicted through the examination of a microcosm.

The novel is a triumph. In Hogwarts terms: 9¾ out of 10.


John Boyne is the author of seven novels for adults and three for children, most recently The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday)

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