Casting her spell on the dark side
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)