"A Casual Vacancy"... J.K. Rowling's new novel is a scream....

The knives are out in J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, “A Casual Vacancy”, a witheringly misanthropic account of the battle for a vacant seat on the local council of Pagford, a chintzy market town in Middle England. Rowling’s narrative wizardry transforms the prosaic machinations of small town politics into a frenzied blood letting. Susan Shaw reports.

J.K. Rowling promoting "Casual Vacancy"

Snobbery, corruption and cronyism are amongst the milder of the human horrors unearthed in Rowling’s graveyard of souls. Gluttony, slander, financial greed, lust, envy, adultery, racism, bullying, addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, rape, incest and murderous intent – all the sins are unleashed.   

A strange cast for the Queen of wizardry

Rowling’s  sprawling cast of characters is a gallery of grotesques, spanning the whole of the viciously divisive class system, from a heroin addicted prostitute, Terri Weedon, to the local toff, Aubrey Fawley, a merchant banker. The ugliest behaviour, however, belongs to the middle class characters, who are described with fascinated disgust. There’s the odious  Councillor  Howard Mollison, “an extravagantly fat man of sixty four.  A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed”.  Howard Mollinson, his equally poisonous wife, Shirley, his ghastly son, Miles and his sluttish daughter in law, Samantha, personify conservative middle class hypocrisy.  Howard rails against the “culture of entitlement”, the scroungers, petty criminals and drug addicts who populate the Fields, the god forsaken council estate adjoining Pagford.  He’s determined to close down the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, a vital resource for many of the Fields’ benighted inhabitants, but  he’s taken to task at a council meeting by his sworn enemy, Parminder Jawanda, the local GP:

Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour’ said Parminder.

In a nutshell, yes.

Before they cost the state any more money.


And you’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her,’do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollinson, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital?  And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?

Teenage vengeance

You’d be mistaken if you assumed that Parminder Jawanda embodies the ethics of a caring society.  She’s also a monster, a cruel harridan of a mother, who is oblivious to the self harming and depression of her  teenage daughter, Sukhvinder, and the cyber bullying that drives her close to suicide.  The teenage characters portrayed in “A Casual Vacancy” are all angry and at war with their parents. It is they who introduce the necessary element of mayhem into the conflicts of Pagford Council by hacking into the Council’s website and posting malicious, but true messages about the various individuals hoping to fill the vacant seat.  The headmaster who cannot control his sexual fantasies about his pupils.  The businessman looking to line his own pockets with council contracts.  The adultery of Howard Mollinson. This justified adolescent fury is as close as you will get to a positive moral value in “A Casual Vacancy”.  The adults in the book, if not vile and malevolent, are uniformly blind to their own flaws and insensitive to the needs and dilemmas of their own children.  This causes a ghastly tragedy in the closing chapters of the book; it’s a profoundly upsetting moment, brilliantly plotted and staged by Rowling.  

Trying hard...

Rowling’s mastery of complex plots makes for compelling reading as the novel’s scream of rage reaches its crescendo, but in the early chapters, it is hard not to be put off by overwrought similes and metaphors: “Howard carried a mental image of the Fields with him always, like the memory of a nightmare: boarded windows daubed with obscenities; smoking teenagers loitering in the perennially defaced  bus shelters; satellite dishes everywhere like the denuded ovules of grim metal flowers….”

Never have satellite dishes been described more extravagantly.  J. K., we know you can write. You don’t have to try so hard.  This is a minor quibble, however, as “A Casual Vacancy” richly rewards the patient reader of its 568 pages with its magical and passionate orchestration of all the dark forces, which are all too human.