Some things are not a secret about me.
- I read a lot.
- I really really like Harry Potter.
- I am English.
It is therefore unlikely to surprise anyone that I had J.K Rowling’s new book, A Casual Vacancy, on pre-order. I wasn’t expecting a stylist wonder, Harry Potter had not conditioned me to think that – and nor do I think that style alone makes great fiction OR great literature. I was expecting a good story, some good characters, and for my Saturday afternoon to zip away while I read it.
There are some other, perhaps lesser known, facts about me, that also predisposed me towards A Casual Vacancy, given its initial synopsis.
(3a) Specifically, I grew up in strange countryside England (though Cornwall is perhaps a different kind of strange to the more central countryside zones, it’s the celtic thing…) so Pagford seemed like it would be entertainingly close to home.
(4) There is a particular kind of not-quite-as-gentle-as-it-seems-at-first-glance English (yes, I think it’s English, not British) comedy to which I am constitutionally attached and into which A Casual Vacancy looked set fair to belong.
Well, I have read the thing now, and I can report that hypothesis (3a) was fairly correct and (4) was almost but actually not correct, sadly.
By the time I was halfway through the novel, I was very much enjoying it. It was fulfilling my hopes and expectations. The moderately privileged and horrendously self-centred inhabitants of Pagford were being twitted nicely by the author for their selfishness; the lives of the inhabitants Fields’ Council Estate was being given both a certain amount of sympathy and a thoroughly unromantic, fairly unvictimised portrayal. It was all being very well done. Most of the characters were somewhere along a sliding scale of awfulness, apart from the teenagers who were, well, teenagers, and whose awfulnesses were all largely down to the fact that even the best of parents screw you up a bit, and the adults in this story are not the best of parents. I do think J.K. Rowling writes teenagers pretty well, by the way.
And then, sadly, it all went off the rails. In the last few chapters there are two incidents (one leading to the next) that are, simply, horribly bleak. It feels like it should be a winding punch to the stomach – something that hurts, possibly even causes tears – and yet, it doesn’t. It just sort of, happens, really. Yes, it’s a horrible thing, but the book doesn’t feel like it’s earned this ending. It feels instead like the book has tried to move down the scale of not-quite-as-gentle-as-it-seems comedy from a sharp, but not entirely merciless, needling of this community for it’s selfishness and cruelty towards its neighbours, to something altogether blacker and more crueller.
It’s not like I wouldn’t enjoy a book that pitched itself at that darker end of the spectrum. It would be a story that lived in the regions of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up in a book-world organised by tone. It’s just that A Casual Vacancy doesn’t inhabit that space, and if Rowling thought that’s what she was writing all along she didn’t convince this reader of it. I felt like I went from reading a book that was doing a really good job of skewering the way we live now, and some of the things that go on and that matter so much in small communities, but that might suggest a way forward or a redemption, to a book that was trying to tear into those things, ripping them open and leaving you with nowhere to go but the whisky bottle.
And it’s such a shame, because A Casual Vacancy held the potential to be a really good and enjoyable book if it just held its initial course. It could have been a book that skewered society and reflected some of the pain that’s there. There’s a plot point – before it all goes wrong – which feels painfully, bleakly real, and which would have worked. It wouldn’t have provided a happy ending, but it might have provided an ending that allowed the reader to go away with a tiny bit of hope that things in Pagford and its environs might improve – and not depressed about both the state of the world and the fate of the book.