Casting her spell on the dark side
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.