This is a story about two funerals, one at each end of the book, and about how one tragedy initiated the chain of events that led remorselessly to another. Along the way the lives of those involved - their dreams, their fears, their desires and prejudices - are exposed.
It's not a pretty sight. They aren't nice people, on the whole. From complacent middle-class arrogance to squalid, foul-mouthed and criminal lower classes, it's hard to find a character you can like. This is so pervasive, especially in the earlier chapters, that I found myself wondering if these were intended as caricatures, with the unpleasantness deliberately exaggerated for effect. I wondered how I was supposed to care about any of these obnoxious people, about their petty politics and spite filled relationships, about their shallow lives in the picture book village or the run-down estate.
The best person in the place seems to be Barry Fairbrother, and its his death at the beginning of the book that sets everything in motion. Almost as if it was only his presence that had kept the worst excesses of the others in check. And even he had his faults; we come to see how his commitment to the community left his family feeling neglected.
What kept me reading about these depressing people was the sheer quality of the writing. Rowling blends descriptions and characters and dialogue together with such smoothness that it required an effort on my part not to keep reading. Even while I was wondering how any group of people could be so consistently unpleasant, I was still involved, drawn in by the flow of words, delighted by some wonderful phrases, amused by the subtle thread of humour, and absorbed by the developing story.
And it was well worth it.
For one thing, 'The Casual Vacancy' is a master class in how to write character-driven plots. Everything that happens in the story (with the exception of the aneurysm which kills Barry Fairbrother) is a direct result of the characters and of their interactions. This is no easy thing to achieve. Many writers struggle to create one or two fully developed and believable people. Rowling not only creates multiple characters with this depth, she weaves them together so that we see how each person's weaknesses and foibles influence every other person. Her plot is not simply driven by character, or even characters, but by the relationships between the characters.
To achieve this, to make it effective and believable, requires not only skilful writing but also a keen observation and a deep understanding of people. Rowling knows how people respond to people, how the insecurity of one can stoke the anger in another, leading to fear, to intolerance, to hatred, to grief. A community of human beings is an immensely complex thing; in 'A Casual Vacancy' Rowling goes a long way to unravelling that complexity and showing how things work between people.
And of course, that means how things work between us. Pagford is a fictional place, (though there is considerable speculation about where it might be based on) and the characters are fictional people, but their lives and situations are all too real. If they are caricatures, it is to bring out and emphasise some of those qualities with which we may be familiar. All too familiar. And the results of these qualities may be familiar as well. Child abuse that leads to wrecked lives. Prejudice that justifies neglect. Hidden agendas, concealed emotions, simmering hatreds. It's all there in Pagford, but it's out there in the real world as well. Our world.
(Sometimes fiction is about 'escaping from reality'. But at other times it's about understanding reality better!)
The difference is that in Pagford, Rowling shows us the mechanisms that drive such things.
It seems to me that what this book is about, underneath everything else, is failing to really see other people. In Pagford, everyone's view of other people is coloured and distorted by their own hopes, dreams, fears and expectations. Which is exactly as it is in the real world, of course, but here we can see how destructive that is. Very few of the characters even try to see beyond their own prejudices and preconceptions. Most of them don't even consider that there is anything more to see. The result of these colliding misconceptions is tragedy.
At the end, for some of the characters at least, there is a redemption of a sort. The tragedy opens some eyes. Some relationships are healed, some people understand themselves or others better. It gives a measure of hope. But it left me wondering if this was always going to be the price.
This is a book that will stay with me for a while. The characters are unpleasant, but not easy to forget; and as I came to understand them better, I came to sympathise with them more. Which is the point, of course. And as a Christian, it led me to consider that the God I believe in understands us all fully, as no other being can. A thought with considerable implications, though whether or not Rowling had that in mind in her writing I have no idea. Certainly, God gets very little mention in the story; to the residents of Pagford, he is a very distant figure.
J. K. Rowling will be forever most closely associated with Harry Potter – and that's no bad thing. But good though those books were (and I certainly enjoyed them) they don't begin to show the full extent of her abilities as a writer – not in the same way as 'A Casual Vacancy' does. If I read a better book this year, I'll be surprised!