The Casual Vacancy – J K Rawling
I had never until now read a single word written by the world’s best-selling and richest living author. But I was facing a long plane journey and wanted something light and unchallenging to read. Well, at least I found that. I suppose I was influenced by having just dozed through the Beeb’s three-part adaptation of the novel which I have to say I found a bit baffling, although I put that down to Call the Midwife-induced narcolepsy.
Let’s start with the good points. I finished it, even though I thought it was overlong. The story made more sense than the TV adaptation but was much looser in its plotting. The book’s ending is radically different from the TV version – the drowning of a neglected child and a young girl dying as a result of shooting up some dodgy heroin presumably being a bit too much for a Sunday night audience – and more in tune with the general direction of the story.
OK – what was bad about it? Well, the central organising theme which was supposed to hold the story together – the sudden demise of Barry Fairbrother creating a vacancy on the local Council – sort of petered out half way through the novel and we ended up with the stories of several, generally unsympathetic characters. The election wasn’t even close – unlike the TV adaptation – and it was if Rawling was looking, somewhat desperately, for something upon which she could hang her dissection of life in a rural backwater.
Her central premise – that middle England is a den of small-minded folk airing their petty grievances and a hot-bed of casual racism, nimbyism, snobbery and sexual frustration – may have some basis in reality. The trouble is that a study of provincial life has a long and noble heritage in English literature – I’m thinking of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and even E F Benson – and Rawling doesn’t hold a candle to any of them. The underclass living in their sink estate in Yarvil feel like they have been born out of a cursory reading of a few copies of the Daily Mail. They are almost cartoon-like, although, surprisingly, less unsympathetically treated than the Pagfordites.
I suppose, if you have made your fame and fortune writing children’s books, you don’t have to pay too much mind to literary style and language but this is supposed to be a vaguely serious novel aimed at adults. So we could do with something better than rather clunky prose, unbelievable dialogue and metaphors which are at best strained and, at worst, seem as though they have been sprinkled randomly by some automated word processing add-in.
This novel got me through my journey and the story line plods along at just the right pace to keep even the casual reader engaged. In the end it is a bit too self-righteous and moralistic in tone for my taste.
There is now a casual vacancy in the R section of my library. I don’t think I will be reading another of her novels.