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‘The Casual Vacancy’ by J.K. Rowling

Having grown up in rural Gloucestershire, it was not difficult to imagine living in the West Country town of Pagford, with its web of local political intrigue, intricate societal configuration and the intimacy verging on claustrophobia all being familiar. As if in confirmation that the novel is based on somewhere near here, the upcoming TV adaptation of The Casual Vacancy has selected locations in Stroud and Painswick for filming this summer.

Critics have drawn parallels between this novel and George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch, subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, and there are certainly striking similarities as Rowling depicts a wide cast of characters, each of them “woven and interwoven” in their social, romantic and familial lives. The narrator also explores the interior worlds of the characters – their fears, memories and systems of morality all open to the reader – whilst between characters miscommunication and mean-spiritedness dominate. One fair criticism might be that too many characters can seem impossible to bring oneself to sympathise with, however our judgements are challenged throughout the narrative as we are granted insights explaining how incidents in Terri’s and Fats’ pasts have caused them to act as they do. Our desire to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters is questioned as even ‘good’ characters are flawed, as we see in Parminder’s unkindness towards her daughter, Sukhvinder, failing to conceive that she is struggling with her own demons.

As part of the generation that has grown up with well-loved and increasingly well-worn copies of the Harry Potter novels at their bedside, it was with some apprehension that I decided to read The Casual Vacancy, having heard second-hand of a clunkiness to Rowling’s prose and a distracting sensationalism in her broaching of adult themes. Dark subjects such as domestic abuse, self-harm and drug addiction do all feature in the narrative – this is certainly not a book for children – but they are dealt with in a sensitive and affecting manner, adding to the construction of character rather than being gratuitous.

The Casual Vacancy is something of a ‘marmite’ novel and some may feel that Rowling doesn’t quite live up to the lofty ambition of writing a Middlemarch for the 21st Century. However, it is an immensely readable and extremely perceptive novel which does not hesitate to address complicated social and political issues in an open-handed manner, exposing hypocrisy and snobbery whilst avoiding the romanticisation of poverty. Most of all though, I would recommend The Casual Vacancy for its extraordinary depiction of human character, as Rowling creates characters who, whilst sometimes infuriating, often unpleasant and always flawed, are credible human beings.

 

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