I really hope that no one reading J.K. Rowling’s first venture into “grown-up” literature is expecting Harry Potter. I know that I wasn’t, but I still have to admit that The Casual Vacancy was a shock to my wizard-friendly system. Even though it’s billed as a tragicomedy, I found it mostly tragic, and hardly comic at all, except maybe in the blackest sense.
Set in the fictional West English village of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy centers around a race for a seat on the Parish Council that has been suddenly vacated, due to the untimely death of one of the councilors. It turns out that the dead councilor was the leader of a political faction in Pagford, supporting a connection with “The Fields,” a particularly unpleasant council estate (or housing project, for Americans).
His body is practically still warm as battle lines between his faction and the opposing one are hastily redrawn. In this fashion, we get to know a great many Pagford citizens, as well as a family living in The Fields. Chaos is sown by disaffected teenagers, the children of several of the candidates for the vacancy, when incriminating evidence against each candidate is mysteriously posted on the Parish Council’s website.
We get an especially unvarnished look at the life of Krystal Wheedon, a 16-year-old girl living in The Fields with her heroin-addict/prostitute mother and 3-year-old brother, Robbie.
Rowling touches on a lot of hot-button issues including racism (there is a Sikh family of doctors in Pagford), welfare policies, child abuse and molestation, alcoholism and drug use, and a lot of other fun things.
What can I say? This book was a real bummer. It was well-written, in a straightforward, non-literary manner, with moments of brilliance. It just presented such a bleak view of human nature. It seemed like every one of the many characters, children included, was despicable, pathetic, or both.
It was a page-turner, too. Once you get past the initial confusion of the dozens of characters, the pace is gripping. I read the 500 pages in just two sittings. I’ve seldom felt such a mix of suspense and depression. I had to eat chocolate throughout, to keep from getting too down. Usually, if a book is this upsetting, I can read at a much slower pace. Not the case here.
Rowling is a fantastic storyteller, and I think she pulls this off quite well. This will never surpass Harry Potter, because people will inevitably compare. I did catch a thematic similarity, in that, just like in HP, the youngsters in The Casual Vacancy are forced to pay for the sins of their parents- the adults have really screwed things up for them. They do go some way toward exacting some justice, although it’s ultimately an exercise in futility.
I found the ending horribly tragic. After Krystal’s little brother drowns in the river, she commits suicide by overdosing on heroin. As awful as that is, I felt a bit of relief for the two of them, because their lives were so terrible already and were almost inevitably headed in an even worse direction. Even though there were a few people who wanted to help Krystal, her two main sources of support were recently dead, and no one else cared enough. That her most plausible ambition was to get pregnant as quickly as possible, so she could get her own government-subsidized housing away from her train-wreck mother was nearly as tragic as her death.
I can’t say I truly enjoyed this, but it was a good read.