January 10th, 2013
It was Ian Parker’s piece in the New Yorker back in October that made me want to read The Casual Vacancy: in that piece, Parker describes it as “a rural comedy of manners that, having taken on state-of-the-nation social themes, builds into black melodrama,” and says the plot focuses on several households in a fictional village in the Southwest of England called Pagford. I like books that are about a place and the intersecting lives of the people in it (e.g. Zadie Smith’s NW), so this sounded promising. Where NW has the exuberance of London (and of Smith’s stylistic playfulness) going for it, The Casual Vacancy has the claustrophobia of a tiny village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where local politics (the events of the book are set in motion by the death of a town councillor, and the question of who will take his vacant seat) come with acrimony and scandal. It also has a lot of unhappy and/or smug and unlikeable characters doing fairly awful things to one another: there’s a man who verbally and physically abuses his wife and sons; there’s a wishy-washy man who’s let his girlfriend move to town from London even though he’s not that into her; there’s a teenage boy who bullies a girl in his class; there’s a heroin addict; there are gossips and pompous jerks who make each other unhappy in smaller ways.
But despite all that, a lot of this book is really pleasing to read. Rowling is great at rendering the shifts and flows of her characters’ thoughts, and how information travels in a small town, and how individuals and families hold secrets. Near the end of the book, there’s a section describing one fateful morning and how various characters’ paths cross: the pacing and rhythm of it is really satisfying. And throughout, there are some good turns of phrase, and some wonderfully described moments: at one point the narrator describes two characters thinking about the vacant council seat “not as an empty space, but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities” (38). In another scene, when a pop song is played as the closing music at a funeral, there’s this, which is so right on and hilarious:
The congregation filed slowly out of the church, trying not to walk in time to the beat of the song. (164)
At times, though, scenes or characters feel clichéd: there are pieces of the sections concerned with class/poverty (a big concern in Pagford is the local housing project and whether it can be redistricted to belong to the nearby city, Yarvil) that felt that way to me, and some of the scenes of teen angst did, too. I wasn’t really a fan of the ending, either: oh, look, bad things happen to the girl who has sex—sigh.