The Casual Vacancy
Little, Brown and Company, 2012
503 pp., $35.00
The Casual Vacancy
I did not expect The Casual Vacancy to resemble Harry Potter in any way. J. K. Rowling's new novel, I had read, would be contemporary realism, not fantasy, aimed at adults, not young teens. It would feature an entire village, not an intrepid trio; its theme would be small-town hypocrisy, not the cosmic battle between good and evil. OK, I thought, maybe it will be like something Maeve Binchy or Elizabeth Buchan or Joanna Trollope might write. Fine: I like "hen lit."
So eight days ago, when the book was released, I grabbed one of the 2 million hardcover copies published in the U.S., began reading, and quickly appreciated Ian Parker's faint praise in the "New Yorker": " 'The Casual Vacancy' will certainly sell, and it may also be liked." Several hours into the book I emailed a friend: "I'm on page 183 and am waiting to be captivated." Joanna Trollope this was not.
Here's the situation: Barry Fairbrother, banker and councillor in the English West Country village of Pagford, drops dead. Various people must deal with his absence: his wife and four children, the council president and deli owner, a couple of lawyers, the local high school's deputy headmaster, a guidance counselor, several social workers, a pair of doctors, a factory manager, a nurse, a junkie's daughter, a financier, and several seriously confused adolescents.
Unfortunately, we must memorize some 30 names and learn a lot of backstories before getting to the book's central conflict: how to fill Barry's vacant council seat and, more broadly, how to deal with the underprivileged residents of the Fields, a subsidized housing project for the desperately poor. By the time the pace picks up, many readers—if Amazon's customer reviews are to be believed—have already given up. Too bad: for those who persist, The Casual Vacancy eventually becomes both fascinating and provocative.
Most of the instant reviews were, at best, tepid. Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, called it "a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel …. The book seems doomed to be known as Mugglemarch."
The New York Times reviewer was even less flattering. "The real-life world [Rowling] has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that 'The Casual Vacancy' is not only disappointing—it's dull," wrote Michiko Kakutani ("Darkness and Death, No Magic to Help"). "The novel … reads like an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like 'Peyton Place' with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives."
Everyone agreed that Pagford has nothing to do with Hogwarts: "The only obvious parallel with the Potter books is that, like them, it is animated by a strong dislike of mean, unsympathetic, small-minded folk," says Tait. But everyone may have read too quickly. The Casual Vacancy and the Harry Potter series are alike in one important respect. Both are based on a profoundly biblical worldview.
Look at how Rowling uses religious themes.
Chapter 1 introduces us to "the pretty little town of Pagford," dominated by "the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey." The expensive houses are located in Church Row. The church itself is "mock-Gothic." The townspeople, we will learn in later chapters, use the building for school plays and council meetings and parties. Another former church, Bellchapel, has been turned into an addiction treatment center. The Old Vicarage is now owned by a Sikh family. Rowling seems to want us to know that the world of The Casual Vacancy is decidedly post-Christian. It is what Quaker theologian D. Elton Trueblood once termed a "cut flower civilization": pretty now, but rootless and doomed.
And then Barry Fairbrother drops dead.
If this book has a Christ figure, it is Fairbrother. He had not shared in the village's sins, though he was falsely accused. He reached out to loners, the mentally ill, immigrants, the unattractive, and even the trouble-making daughter of a notorious prostitute and addict. He was the "living example," thinks one of the few likable characters, of what the council members proposed in theory. "Did they not see," she muses, "what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died?" Even his name has Christian overtones: "Fairest Lord Jesus," "Jesus Our Brother, Strong and Good." He does not come back to life, alas.
Now Pagford, a village without a living faith, is a village without its one upstanding citizen. No one is fit to fill Fairbrother's council seat, and yet the council must go ahead and make major decisions involving the poor who share their schools and social services. No wonder things are a mess.
I am not saying that J.K. Rowling has written a Christian allegory; The Casual Vacancy is far more complex than that. Neither am I saying that she was thinking of the Gospels when she devised her plot; it seems unlikely. On her website she says, "I love nineteenth century novels that centre on a town or village. This is my attempt to do a modern version." Perhaps religious themes sneaked in through her deep acquaintance with Victorian authors and biblical literature. Perhaps she included them intentionally. However they got into the novel, they are hard to miss once you go looking for them.