Review: The Casual Vacancy

A novel by JK Rowling, televised by the BBC in three parts.

Proletarian writers

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Abigail Lawrie as Krystal Weedon in the BBC adaptation

Proletarian writers

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Imagine a beautiful village in the southwest of England – either Cotswold stone or Devon thatch as you prefer. Imagine its surroundings of beautiful, rolling countryside – either flourishing crops or green pastures.

Imagine what it must be like to live in this picture-postcard scene; to take part in the daily life of its inhabitants. Is it a rural idyll? This is the setting of The Casual Vacancy, and Ms Rowling answers our question with a resounding ‘No’.

In her first contemporary novel, JK Rowling ventures into the unfashionable worlds of storytelling and of social realism. The Casual Vacancy is set in a prosperous west-country village, Pagford, located near (and threatened by) the expanding industrial town of Yarvil. The story revolves around the death of a parish councillor by the name of Barry Fairbrother, the vacancy on the council that his death causes (the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title), and the resulting intrigues over the election of his successor.

The council is divided over the attitude it should take towards the expansion plans of the nearby town in general and, in particular, towards the inhabitants of a run-down council estate – The Fields – which was built by the district council on land at the outskirts of both town and village that had been sold to the district by the City-Banker owner of Sweetlove House (which had been for centuries the home of the lords of the manor, the Sweetloves), Aubrey Fawley, whose arrival on the local scene had at first been welcomed by the wealthier citizens of Pagford.

However, The Fields and its inhabitants are now a thorn in the sides of those better-off members of Pagford society, as they are included in both the parish council area and in the village school’s catchment area. The dead councillor was himself born and brought up in The Fields. He was sympathetic to the children of the estate, and had formed a girls’ rowing team, which gave opportunities of wider social engagement to the team members.

He had adopted as his protégée a 16-year-old girl from the estate, Krystal Weedon, who had had a turbulent history at school and who came from a classically deprived and ‘dysfunctional’ family. The identity and sympathies of the newly-elected replacement councillor would be critical to the efforts of the parish council chairman (Howard Mollison, a local shopkeeper) to have the boundaries of the parish redrawn in order to remove the housing estate from its area and the estate’s children from the town’s primary school.

Those of you who have been following the television series on the BBC may not recognise this summary. The adapter of the story for the series has made substantial changes, though it is understood that the author is happy with what was done. The chief characters are still there and the driving force behind the plot remains the snobbery of Howard Mollison, his wife and supporters, their venom towards the inhabitants of The Fields, their determination to drive those inhabitants out of the village, and how all this is countered by the supporters on the parish council of the late Barry Fairbrother and of The Fields’ inhabitants.

The story still revolves around the election of Barry Fairbrother’s replacement onto the council, as the new councillor may break the deadlock that has existed between the two sides over the future of The Fields. But there have been significant alterations made, with a view to speeding along the story. Many characters have been dropped (unsurprising in a dramatisation which aims to condense the story, though with a loss to the richness of the narrative of village life, as many of those dropped are the older children of the main adult characters, and who form such an important part of the social network of the village and of Krystal’s life), but also seminal events have been altered to make the story more vivid and sensational in the absence of Ms Rowling’s humorous and perceptive narrative.

We nevertheless recommend that you watch the TV series when it appears on DVD. The adapter has done a good job of conveying the story’s emotional punch and all of the cast are superb in their portrayal of the characters. In the meantime, you are warmly recommended to read the book.

A broad canvas

The story is wide in its sweep. Ms Rowling is a shrewd observer of human nature. She has the full range of characters in her story, from the smug chairman of the parish council, his adoring and socially-ambitious wife, his meek solicitor son (dragooned by his father into standing as a candidate for the vacant seat on the council) and put-upon daughter-in-law.

Then there are Colin Wall (also a candidate), the ineffectual deputy head of the city secondary school which most of the town’s older children attend, the Jawandas, an Indian-origin (sikh) family of two doctor parents (he a cardio-thoracic surgeon at the city’s hospital, she a GP in the town, a councillor and ally of Barry Fairbrother and opponent of Howard Mollison) and three children, and the late Barry’s wife and their four children, Barry’s half-brother, Simon Price (a candidate who is forced to drop out of the race), his nurse wife and their two sons.

Ms Rowling’s canvas includes the lives, loves and hates of the teenaged children – their relationships with each other and with their parents – as well as the different, interconnected webs of relationships between the various adults in the town – either members, supporters or observers of the factions on the council and of the struggle between them for supremacy and for the right to put themselves forward to the district council as the true representatives of opinion in the village.

Ms Rowland is masterly when showing what makes different people tick: her portrayals of the inner life of the two older teenage boys, ‘Fats’ and ‘Arf’ (sons respectively of Colin Wall and Simon Price), of Sukhvinder (the Jawandas’ middle child) and of Krystal Weedon herself are remarkable.

Krystal is the 16-year-old daughter of a heroin-addicted mother, who has an absent older half-sister and a young half-brother, Robbie (aged three in the book and not yet potty-trained), whom she loves with a passion and whom she looks after whenever her mother, Kerri, is incapable of caring for him (which is most of the time, as Kerri remembers her prescription for Methadone but not the ages of her children).

There is an ever-present threat that social services will take Robbie from his mother’s care. He had been taken into care for several months and was only returned to her on condition that she gave up drugs, attended a rehabilitation clinic, was monitored to see that she stayed drug-free and took Robbie regularly to the council nursery.

Krystal had been brought up for most of her childhood by her maternal grandmother in Pagford, but the old woman is now too infirm to take on Robbie. Kerri forever teeters on the brink of disaster and is not helped by the social services continually changing her social worker.

Social realism and the art of storytelling

Ms Rowling is a writer for the 21st century. Her chapters are arranged like a script for a film: each chapter covering a succeeding day as events unfold following the death of Barry Fairbrother. The chapters are divided into scenes as she moves the narrative to show us one character, one family and then another – showing us how each is affected by the death and the events that follow it, and how each in turn helps to shape those events. The reader is inexorably drawn into the story and wants to know what happens to each of the characters.

Nevertheless, reviewers who wrote favourably of The Casual Vacancy were relatively few in number. Yet some did correctly identify the importance of this novel, including Lev Grossman of Time Magazine: “A big, ambitious, brilliant, profane, funny, deeply upsetting and magnificently eloquent novel of contemporary England … a deeply moving book by someone who understands both human beings and novels very, very well.” (27 September 2012)

Scotland on Sunday: “Insightful, meaningful, daring and resolutely challenging to tabloid assumptions regarding the moral worth of individuals.” (30 September 2012)

Melvin Bragg in the Observer: “This is a wonderful novel. JK Rowling’s skills as a storyteller … are combined with her ability to create memorable and moving characters to produce a state-of-England novel driven by tenderness and fury.” (30 September 2012)

However, among bourgeois literary critics at large, there is a thinly-disguised contempt for good story telling. A recent contributor on the BBC Radio 4’s Book Programme said that he was always looking for “something new” in any new novel he reads.

Our view is that is an extremely shallow approach, although usually dressed up as something profound. Has there been anything new – anything really untried – since James Joyce wrote Ulysses in the 1920s; the first ‘stream of consciousness’ novel? There is nothing new about storytelling itself, certainly – we know from anthropological studies of oral cultures that storytelling predates writing.

Indeed, it is reasonable to suppose that storytelling is as old as speech. Human societydeveloped by passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. At first, this was a slow process, taking many thousands of years to develop tools and extend skills, but the process increased in speed as social groups became larger, and accelerated exponentially after the development of agriculture and settlements, then cities and writing, then printing and wider forms of communication.

Our own age of digital information and increased city dwelling has seen a tremendous increase in the speed of technical developments, as the exchange of information involves more and more people, with the result that there are ever-greater numbers of creative minds making their contribution to the whole.

Stories have and always have had a significant part in this process of passing on knowledge and experience, to enable the listener – now the reader more often than not – to learn from the experience of the teller or writer. It is not just technical information that is passed on in this way, but also life experience.

There is no need for every individual to experience every type of event first hand before he or she gains understanding, any more than it is any longer necessary for every individual to taste every sort of fungus and plant to find out what is edible and what is poisonous. Nor do we any longer need to learn how to make every item of daily use before being able to use it, whether food, clothes or tools/machinery.

All types of knowledge and understanding have the potential to make an individual a more useful member of society.

With individualism as its central creed and justification, the bourgeoisie and its apologists have lost sight of the central importance of society, and of social cooperation and interaction, to the well-being of humans – both as individuals and as groups. Once, this individualism was a liberating philosophy when counterposed to medievalism and the rigid social structure of that age, but now it has become the curse of our era, increasingly alienating us from one another and fragmenting our society.

Individualism in art is expressed in the search for novelty and originality for its own sake, irrespective of whether the art – in whatever form – speaks to us of the wider human experience. Thus a glass of water on a shelf is displayed in Tate Modern with the title Oak Tree and is solemnly explained by the gallery guide as representing the tree because the ‘artist’ says it does! Meanwhile, by the same logic, an ‘artist’ is such also because he or she says s/he is one.

Thus storytelling is denigrated by the bourgeois critic as not ‘new’ or ‘innovative’ and is not respected. The majority of us who enjoy a good story well told are made to feel less intellectually rigorous than the critic. Yet one’s critical faculties should be engaged whenever one reads a story, as they are powerful tools of learning and of propaganda.

No art, and no novel, is without a view of the world and of society. There is no such thing as classless art, though we are told that most art is classless – unless it is clearly critical of bourgeois society, when it officially becomes ‘political’. That view is widely put forward and accepted, and is designed to make us switch off our critical faculties and allow the story to influence us, without thinking about what effect it might be having on our own view of the world.

In fact, most art, and most novels produced in the imperialist countries, are predicated upon the assumption that bourgeois society is the highest, best and only form of society now available to mankind. With that world view, it is not surprising that most ‘serious’ bourgeois novelists take a pessimistic view of human nature.

The market economy promotes a ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality and its proponents and apologists alike put forward the idea that this has been the ‘natural’ behaviour of humankind since the earliest times – built into our genes – even though all the scientific evidence makes it clear that humans from the earliest times, just as now, could and can only survive in groups, and could not and still cannot develop without social cooperation.

There are novels that tell of the resistance of the working and oppressed people against capitalist and imperialist oppression and exploitation, and which tell of the revolutionary struggles of the workers and peasants to make and consolidate the proletarian revolution in those countries fortunate enough to have had a revolution and to have built socialism. Generally, these are not written by British writers or writers from any of the imperialist countries. Such struggles are far outside their experience or, usually, their understanding.

Here in Britain, there have been some novels that throw light on the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class in Britain. Many of Dickens’ novels did that, and were the first to be state-of-England novels, as he was living in the earliest days of the development of the first industrial cities in the world. (See ‘Charles Dickens, 1812-1870 – an appreciation’, Proletarian, August 2012)

There is also, of course, Robert Tressell’s well-known novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist, which shows how the working class lived and how they were exploited in the earliest years of the last century. That was before Cecil Rhodes made his observation that without imperialism there would be revolution, when the new stage of imperialism or monopoly capitalism (to be distinguished from empire as colonialism) was in its infancy, and before the threat posed by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia resulted in the bourgeoisie improving the condition of their ‘own’ working class just enough to douse the flames of revolution at home.

As the revolutionary fervour of the British working class abated, with their ‘leaders’ bought off and the movement diverted into purely economic demands, there were fewer proponents of the working-class viewpoint in the arts generally.

The result of a century of subordination of the arts in Britain to imperialism has been a dearth of novels of social observation that are at all sympathetic to the working class. The ‘working-class’ novels of the 1960s were about their protagonists escaping from the working class, just as their authors had, thanks to the 1944 Education Act and grants for university study.

Another result has been the denigration of the art and craft of storytelling. This has survived mainly in what is called ‘genre’ fiction (children’s, teens, crime, historical, action, chick-lit, romance, etc, etc). As such, it is regarded as less serious or significant and as being unworthy of critical attention. (Hence the general surprise among the chattering classes that Hilary Mantel’s first two novels about Thomas Cromwell – Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies – each won the prestigious Booker Prize in its respective year of publication.)

Even less regarded as serious are stories with a strong moral content. But moral content is to be found in much of children’s and teen literature and in much detective fiction. That is a great part of the appeal of such books to their readers (although to be fashionable is to eschew moral values and espouse violence and pornography).

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books are good examples of children’s books with a strong moral content as well as brilliant storytelling. There are resonances of contemporary society, too, even though she draws heavily on Greek and Roman myth and Christian and medieval European stories for the symbolism in her books.

For example, the second in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as well having the central theme of good versus evil forces that runs through all of the series, highlights the issues of ‘purebloods’ (100 percent wizard ancestry) and ‘mudbloods’ (non-wizard ancestry), showing those who favoured the former over the latter were on the side of the evil forces and also showing that both good and bad could come from one or other group or from those of mixed ancestry.

In other words, race was not the deciding feature but racism was to be abhorred. Class also features, with the rich character being shown as racist and oppressive and a slave-owner, while sympathy lies with the slave (freed by Harry) and with the hard-working.

The reviewer in the Guardian thought that Ms Rowling drew inspiration for her “study of provincial life” from Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. Melvyn Bragg compared her skill in storytelling with that of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and PD James. Our view is that, in the scale and complexity of her novel, Ms Rowling is comparable to many of the Victorian novelists who were observers of contemporary society, but that the novelist whose work The Casual Vacancy most brings to mind is Charles Dickens, precisely because of that ‘tenderness and fury’ in her writing identified by Bragg.

There is a drive in this book to show Krystal – and through her others in similar situations – as worth so much more respect than they are normally accorded. She is a most unlikely heroine, yet she is the pivotal character in the story, and, by the end of the book, the reader wants her to achieve her potential as much as Barry Fairbrother did.

Dickens was the first to make the poor and dispossessed the heroes of his novels, notably in Oliver Twist, written when the new Poor Law of 1832 was not formally in force, but when many workhouse masters were already enforcing its intentionally harsh regime.

Ms Rowling’s book, like Dickens’ work, no doubt draws on her own experience. She lived on benefits as a single mother until she found a way out of poverty through her writing. Dickens, too, was used to the sight and company of workhouse children – first as a result of living next to the Marylebone workhouse during his early years, then as maids in his parents’ house and finally as fellow workers during his time working in the blacking factory aged just 10-11 years old, when his father was in the Marshalsea prison for debt. The reader feels that both authors are fired up by their desire to expose injustice and influence people’s reaction to it.

Both authors use(d) their time and money in support of those causes nearest to their hearts, though Dickens did not ever achieve such riches that he could afford to stop writing and working; he did not have the benefit of worldwide literacy or secure royalty payments.

There are other differences, too. Ms Rowling’s humour is not as broad as was Dickens’ in his earlier novels, when his portrayal of some of his comic characters verged on caricature. Also, Dickens was constrained by the expectation of his readers to provide a happy ending to most of his early novels, as he did for Oliver in Oliver Twist (though his later novels were darker).

Optimism was also the spirit of the age. After the Napoleonic wars ended in victory for Britain and her allies in 1815, the British navy reigned undisputed over the world’s oceans, and, as the British empire grew, so did trade and with it the demand for literate and numerate workers to be the clerks and book-keepers for the finance and merchant houses as well as the manufacturers, especially in the city of London.

This was the reason for the enormous growth of London’s population and size in the 19th century; and this created the newly-literate section of the working class, with a little spare income, who provided the main readership for the magazines in which Dickens’ novels were serialised. (This was long before compulsory, free education, which was established only after the Education Act of 1870, one year before Dickens’ death.)

There could hardly be a greater contrast with today’s dominant mood of pessimism and decline.

Although economic imperialism – monopoly capitalism – continues to this day and seems stronger than ever since the collapse of the USSR in 1989, yet it is moribund and has no solution even to its own worldwide crisis of overproduction, let alone to the many other challenges facing the world. Its only reaction to these challenges has been to intensify its efforts to dominate and control the world’s resources through war – waged directly and by proxy wherever there arises any challenge to that control.

Ms Rowling’s book does not have a happy ending; nor does it offer any solution to the social ills it describes. It is a tragedy in the purest sense, in that it is the inherent natures of the characters that lead them inevitably to their fate, even while the reader is hoping for a different outcome.

We need more novels, plays and films that accurately reflect and are in sympathy with the life of the working class in Britain today. The Casual Vacancy is a notable addition to a regrettably small body of work and is to be welcomed as such – and all the more so because it is beautifully written and a thoroughly enjoyable, if disturbing, read.