This month, the literary world has been buzzing at the revelation that J. K. Rowling has been unveiled as the author of The Cuckoos Calling. While this has generally been praised by critics, her first post-Harry Potter venture, The Casual Vacancy, generated a storm of debate, and this week I finally got around to finishing it.
The Casual Vacancy opens with the untimely death of Barry Fairbrother, a central figure in the town of Pagford and an active member of the parish council. As the town looks to fill Barry’s empty seat on the council, the divisions, fractions and tensions between the town residents come to a head. As competition heats up, more than one family is set on a course for disaster. And when tragedy strikes, we’re left wondering whether events have been brought about by circumstance or whether they are the inevitable outcome of a flawed society.
First on every agenda is a longstanding issue concerning local council estate, The Fields. The town and its parish council are essentially divided into two opposing groups. One side is keen to integrate the estate into the community, while the other is desperate to pass responsibility for the estate and its residents back to nearby Yeovil.
Told from multiple perspectives, the reader is treated to an in-depth character assessment of various town residents. Overall, the majority of these characters are deeply unlikeable, narrow minded and self-centred – from the pompous local shop owner Howard to his bored and acerbic daughter-in-law Samantha or the slightly ridiculous and over excitable figure of deputy headmaster Colin.
However, there are also a number of characters that really struck a chord with me. Most notably, this included local troublemaker Krystal Wheedon. The daughter of a habitual drug user, she is trapped in a constant cycle of circumstance. No doubt intended to illustrate the potentially devastating effects of inherent social prejudices, Krystal is shown as a victim of the system and the attitudes and stereotypes of the middle classes, but remains a completely believable and well rounded character in her own right.
Rowling puts herself firmly inside the heads of her characters, and the result is a relentless and damning exploration of the human nature. It actually made me quite uncomfortable to read, as throughout the course of the novel we’re exposed to every horrible, selfish and self-loathing thought that could ever cross a person’s head.
Did I enjoy it? I’m not sure. I thought it was really well written, and the tongue in cheek humour and subtle mockery throughout the book kept the plot flowing. All of the characters, those that I hated and those that I emphasized with, were well constructed and felt incredibly real to me by the end of the novel. Overall, it’s maybe a touch too political for my liking, but the themes explored by Rowling throughout the course of the novel stuck with me long after I turned the last page.