(Remember when I said last week that I had a super awesome guest post coming up? This is it! - sj)
Three provisos before I even begin this review:
- Spoiler alert! This review includes references from the Harry Potter series, including Deathly Hollows.
- Read this review in tandem with its review in The New York Times by Michiko Kakutani. We have arrived at entirely different appreciations of the book.
- Warning: this review includes foul language and mild nudity. No. I wish there was mild nudity. Alas, only foul language.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling is NOTHING like Harry Potter. But you knew that already. You have probably already read the first 50 pages, 100 at best, and are debating in your head whether you should keep going. For starters, our hero, or the character that comes closest to one, Barry Fairbrother, an apparent champion of the poor and promoter of second chances, dies in the first chapter. Not a heroic death, mind you. He dies of an aneurysm in the brain. For some reason the simple death of a middle aged man throws the sleepy town of Pagford into a whirlwind. Fairbrother is a member of the parish council of Pagford, and his death produces a “casual vacancy” that needs to be filled with a special election.
Like those “find your own ending” stories we read in elementary school, this is the place where you have to make a choice. You can jump to Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times, which will make you use the book for kindling on the first cold night this fall when you light up the fireplace. Or you can choose to read on as I tell you why I think this is some of the best writing I’ve read in a while.
Made your choice? The Casual Vacancy is a character study embedded in an every-story. Your every-story. Mine too. Avid fans of the pace and the action of the Harry Potter series might find this dull and uninviting. Reading on turns eerily and uncomfortably familiar, as we see our neighbors, siblings, aunts and uncles, and town officials, perhaps even ourselves, portrayed in ugly and stark relief. Ever been to a dinner party where your date desperately paid more attention to another guest than to you? Did existence in high school ever seem so unbearable that the only solace you could find was the dark trickle of blood coming from tiny lacerations on your arm? Did your best friend ever carelessly make out with the one person you thought was your soul mate? Yeah, me too. And for its similarity to real life, reading through The Casual Vacancy sometimes felt like a real pain in the ass. Or a kick in the gut. Often both.
The families of Pagford engage in the dynamics of small town politics grating against a growing population and the concomitant class and culture clash this brings. The sudden “casual vacancy” opened up by Fairbrother’s death highlights the struggle of negotiating the old town character and charm of Pagford with the expanding responsibilities for the poorer constituents in the Fields. Responsibly addressing questions like the re-drawing of district lines, where the poor will live and go to school, and the future of a meth clinic prove to be too much pressure on the adults in this town whose lives are already painfully crippled by the exhausting demand of simply waking up in the morning.
If with the rest of the Harry Potter fandom you’ve wondered why Dumbledore is a sick f$#k, The Casual Vacancy answers this question by parading before us a host of adults of every kind royally f%#king up the lives of the children that fate has precariously placed in their care. Simply put, adults can’t get out of our own way – overwhelmed by feeble concerns, the burden of aging bodies and faces, petty power trips, and the same insecurities that plagued us in high school… writ large – even when children’s lives depend on our ability to overcome them and simply be more human, even if briefly.
If adults in this story evoke the ways in which adults around Harry made a whole bunch of bad decisions, you will be interested to know that the children in The Casual Vacancy fight back. They are a Dumbledore’s Army of their own, yet fractured, and a heck of a lot more vindictive. Through “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother”, the pen name of anonymous posts on the parish council website, children effect vicious revenge on the adults in their lives, principals, politicians, local business owners, clinic doctors, parents, all of them. Through posts to this website the truths that haunt the adults and hurt the children are traded back and forth. Rowling masterfully spins the characters through the winds of the storm this creates and as a reader you can only watch its unraveling both with a sense of awe for the author on the one hand, and dread for the characters on the other.
For all their feeble and terribly human flaws, and unbeknownst to me, I began caring deeply for these characters. By the time I did care, however, it was tragically too late. The problem with the games people play when they feel cornered by monsters of their own making, or when they don’t give a damn, is that the innocent and the poor always pay a very high price. The sting of tragedy in The Casual Vacancy felt more vacant, more inconsolable than the survey of the dead in the Great Hall during the war at Hogwarts. The deaths of Fred, Lupin and Tonks were imbued with a dignity totally absent from the deaths in The Casual Vacancy. I somehow wanted to blame Rowling for this loss of dignity, but then realized it was the characters’ own doing.
I absolutely disagree with Kakutani, who sees no magic in this story. On the contrary, there is a fantastically magical moment when the least likely character, during a rescue attempt, emerges as if from a cocoon, to save not just herself, but perhaps the whole town, from the wretched and suffocating grasp of their self-importance. The most heroic moment comes when this character is able to conjure a memory of unadulterated joy and resistance, a patronus perhaps, able to break the spell of disappointment and indifference that has taken a hold of Pagford, giving us a glimpse of what humanity might truly look like beyond the mirror of our own discontent.
But, Kakutani is right. This is not Harry Potter. Thank God for that. That I stuck it out for its 503 pages is a testament to Rowling’s craft. Right now I have this uncontrollable urge to re-read the HP series, to start again with The Boy Who Lived, paying even more attention to the adults in the story, and the ways in which the lines between heroism and tragic self-centeredness are drawn, and, if I’m brave enough, to check where I stand.
MT Dávila is a wife, a mother, an assistant Christian Ethics professor and a HUGE Harry Potter fan.
She and sj have known each other for years, they used to geek out together regularly on the now defunct diagonally.org – the only Harry Potter forum that insisted each member use proper English when posting. It was a lovely place for grown ups to hang out and discuss all things HP.