Imagine for a moment that you are J.K. Rowling. Your internationally bestselling novels about an orphan boy who attends an imaginary school for wizards and witches, over which you labored for 10 years, have sold hundreds of millions of copies. They have been translated into 73 languages and turned into eight blockbuster movies. Harry Potter is now and probably will remain a household name for decades. You are reportedly the richest woman in England (even richer than your queen), quite possibly the world. You are A-listed for every conceivable event on the planet. Would you rest on your laurels, perhaps buy a private jet and a yacht or two, and tour the world?
"This serious, often dark and sometimes humorous novel is a tale of the inhabitants of the small, west England village of Pagford, similar to the one where Rowling grew up. She has brought them to life through a half-dozen middle-class families who share career, political and social ambitions."
Suppose instead that your life consists of an occasional commencement address and the rare television interview, but you would rather retain your privacy and work with disadvantaged children that harken back to your own humble beginnings. And your creative mind continues to nudge you that you still have stories to tell.
This is how Rowling’s eagerly awaited new novel, THE CASUAL VACANCY, came about. By virtue of her fame, over one million copies were pre-sold before the book hit the stores. Readers expecting the charm and magic of Harry Potter are in for a surprise. This serious, often dark and sometimes humorous novel is a tale of the inhabitants of the small, west England village of Pagford, similar to the one where Rowling grew up. She has brought them to life through a half-dozen middle-class families who share career, political and social ambitions. Their children attend the same schools; several are teenagers who live in their own worlds of cell phones, laptops and social networking. Between Pagford and a nearby medium-sized city that provides industry and commerce to the region lies a crumbling housing project known as The Fields. The Fields are rife with the problems attendant to poverty --- drugs, prostitution, alcoholism, unemployment, hopelessness --- and an especially poignant family, the Weedons.
Pagford’s governing council is led by its most popular and beloved councilman, Barry Fairbrother. Barry’s unexpected death at age 42 brings about a rift in the community as selection begins to elect his replacement. The council was about to vote on the continuation of a controversial methadone clinic in The Fields, a project that Barry had strongly supported. This event becomes a tragic catalyst for destruction. Relationships between married couples, parents and their teenage children, and long-term friendships become frayed as the ghost of Barry Fairbrother seems to hover over the conscience of the village.
There are no magic potions or wands in Pagford to mitigate the problems that lay just below the surface of the idyllic little village. The all-too-human inhabitants of Pagford are left to fend for themselves, as must we all. Rowling has turned her storytelling mastery to a subject that has made the book controversial in England. It is a story of the clash between classes and is very British in its view of the haves versus the have-nots. The humor, dialect and vocabulary are often colloquial, so if you are unfamiliar with British slang and phrases, you may be nonplussed on occasion. For instance, if one is not familiar with the difference between “public” and “private” schools in the UK --- the exact opposite of the American education system --- it can be confusing. Also, reference to “living on the estate” in England means that you live in publicly financed housing. Going home to the estate is not driving through the gates to your mansion containing rare works of art, a pool and tennis courts in Beverly Hills. It is far more likely to be a tenement whose art is defined by graffiti.
Class consciousness is a popular theme of novels, even in America’s coveted ideal of democracy. THE STARBOARD SEA, the acclaimed first novel by Amber McDermont, takes place in a similar American eastern small town. It is a story of class warfare between the privileged students of an exclusive boarding school and the “townies.” Much like CATCHER IN THE RYE of an earlier era, these and books like them define the ever-present pecking order of the human condition. Will A CASUAL VACANCY by an author of the stature of J.K. Rowling compare? Only time will tell.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 3, 2012
The Casual Vacancy