The Casual Vacancy is as much an event as a novel – J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults! – but only the novel aspect can be reviewed. Incidental atmospherics don’t come into it – an astronomer trying to establish the composition of a comet will try to look beyond the streak it makes in the sky. On one level, nothing could be more natural than that a successful writer should try something new. Nobody finds it strange when a composer of symphonies writes chamber music, or a sculptor starts exhibiting drawings. It’s true that in fiction the direction of genre travel is usually the other way round, with established novelists such as Salman Rushdie or Jeanette Winterson trying their hand at work for a younger age group, but it’s hardly a binding rule.
In other ways it seems perverse. What can top the experience of capturing a global audience, made up mainly of readers for whom your books have been an introduction to the power of fiction? It’s a readership Rowling has honestly earned. For quite a while her publishers seemed to be running to catch up with her sudden popularity, rather than scheming to promote it. Her reward has been a relatively restrained backlash: Christian groups in the States have claimed that a saga about a young wizard must necessarily be satanically inspired, and A.S. Byatt has implied that if Rowling made a deal with the devil she should have held out for greater imaginative powers.
It’s hardly a revelation that War and Peace and Ulysses have more prestige than the Harry Potter books, but no one has ever had as intense a relationship with those novels as the ten-year-olds a decade ago did with Rowling’s series – the children who would only say ‘you-know-who’ for fear of the syllables that make up ‘Voldemort’. The world Rowling is now setting out to conquer is actually smaller than the one she ruled for so long. The attempt is more than a whim, though it’s likely to be less than a disinterested artistic impulse, and it’s still a bit mystifying. When you’ve found the Holy Grail at your first attempt, why do anything as ordinary as diversifying into cookware?
Tolkien is one of the few writers to have started out with a book aimed at a lower age-group. The world of The Lord of the Rings is continuous with the world of The Hobbit, though the angle of vision is very different. Death now permeates Middle Earth, even if the secret of sexuality, perhaps even more traumatising, seems to have been kept from Mordor as much as from the Shire. There’s no comparable connection between the Harry Potter books and The Casual Vacancy, unless you count a scene about halfway through where a young wizard, having placed a curse on his father, burns the scrap of paper on which the spell was written.
The wizardry concerned is of the computer sort. A schoolboy called Andrew Price posts a defamatory statement about his hated father, Simon, on the website of Pagford Parish Council. Simon has put his name forward for election as a councillor, to replace the popular Barry Fairbrother, whose sudden death has created the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title. The technical means of delivering the poisonous message is an ‘SQL injection’, something mentioned to Andrew’s computing class by a young supply teacher who was trying to impress them and ingratiate himself.
This SQL injection, so casually introduced, is crucial to the book’s plotting. Three times it is used by unhappy teenagers to commit symbolic murders, little parricides, harming their parents by revealing shameful secrets. Three times? It sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale, just the area Rowling is leaving behind with her frank descriptions of drug-taking and grotty sex. Perhaps that’s why she adds in a fourth use of the cyber-curse, to break the pattern, though this last one is slightly different and the rule-of-three seems to persist.
A character who pops up for just long enough to pass on a convenient mechanism is a little providential: it would have been worthwhile to build up the introduction of the transforming knowledge more solidly. Plotting is more of a challenge in a novel where fantasy has no acknowledged place. The plot strand about hacking would be easier to swallow if there wasn’t also a storyline about a schoolgirl being bullied on Facebook by someone who keeps changing his profile so that she can’t escape the persecution. The supply teacher, bearer of forbidden knowledge, would have done better to teach the class about privacy settings.
The machinations around the election of a parish councillor provide much of the material of the novel, with the epigraphs for all its sections taken from the seventh edition of Charles Arnold-Baker’s Local Council Administration (2006). The election is important locally because of the disputed status of the Fields, a rundown area that is administratively shared with the encroaching city of Yarvil. The Fields represents the seething id that genteel Pagford doesn’t want to admit to. Old-guard Pagford, led by Howard Mollison, a delicatessen owner, wants the jurisdiction of the Fields handed back to Yarvil, and the addiction clinic there (a parish matter because it’s housed in what was a church) shut down. Mollison, exploiting the opportunity that death has offered, wants these things decided even before the vacancy is filled. This is a Trollopian plot, and it’s clear that Rowling is aiming at High Victorian amplitude and reach.
The early parts of the book, though, offer something a lot less than a thick social web, a fairly basic set of strands that requires quite a few laborious circuits from the author and her busy spinneret to produce true narrative stickiness. There’s an odd refusal of specifics, too, in terms of year, season and location. The only definite chronological marker is Rihanna’s song ‘Umbrella’, from 2007. Given how quickly such anthems become anathema to their original audiences, a date soon after release seems likely, since it can still be chosen as the signature song of a rowing team. Perhaps the suppression of a larger context is only airbrushing to disguise some dated elements, though it seems quite a high price to pay.
A lot of signals are delayed rather than omitted. For instance, it is clear from a garden path’s being ‘crunchy with frost’ that we’re in a cold part of the year. A ‘gentle breeze off the water’ caressing someone’s face less than a week later seems incongruous, though the reference on the same page to wood anemones confirms the suggestion of early spring. In the same style, Pagford’s position on the map is left vague, and it’s more than halfway through the book before the West Country is grudgingly mentioned. More glaring is the subtraction of party allegiances from local politics. There may be a recession, and ‘austerity measures imposed by the national government’, but there’s no reference to a coalition. Though it’s hard to imagine Howard Mollison being anything but as true-blue as the Roquefort sold in his shop, we don’t learn that Pagford has been ‘a safe Conservative seat since the 1950s’ until late in the book. Would a Victorian novel be so coy? Perhaps the cause of Rowling’s squeamishness is that she gave a million pounds to the Labour Party in 2008, and might seem to have nailed her colours to the mast along with her chequebook. On a deeper level the novel comes close to endorsing conservative assumptions about the limits of social mobility. Only the late Barry Fairbrother seems to have risen up the scale without strain or psychological distortion, riding aspirational thermals that no longer have any lifting power. He also comes across as rather too good to be true.
It’s not just Victorian models that make The Casual Vacancy seem a bit thin and monochrome. Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers, published last year, also has a West Country setting (frankly Devonian), not to mention a self-consciously pretty town trying to set itself apart from a larger settlement nearby, disowning any connection with a hinterland where things aren’t so pretty.The role taken by the parish council in Pagford is played, more sinisterly and with greater entertainment value, by Hanmouth’s self-appointed Neighbourhood Watch. There’s no more common formula in modern marketing than if you liked A, you’ll love B, which usually amounts in real terms to if you loved A, you may not hate B, but in this instance it may be true. Moderate admirers of The Casual Vacancy would be electrified by King of the Badgers.
Hensher starts with a strong surge of plot, using the disappearance of a child as the occasion for a panorama, and the richness of his social examination makes Rowling look like a beginner. In The Casual Vacancy possible opportunities for development to crisis point are laid out like the murder weapons on a Cluedo board: asthma in a person morbidly obese, peanut allergy, addictive self-harm, diabetes, obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even in this company Samantha Mollison, Howard’s fading sexpot of a daughter-in-law, seems to have drawn the short straw: obsession with a boy-band hunk she sees on one of her daughters’ DVDs.
Many of the weaknesses in the book’s early passages are things that creative-writing teachers flag up as a matter of routine. Don’t have characters look into mirrors or other reflective surfaces to save you the trouble of describing them (‘The reflection facing her in the mirrored doors of the built-in wardrobe had a misty quality’). If you must, at least make sure they don’t notice things that can hardly be news to them, such as the colour of their hair (‘His face stared back at him from out of the tarnished mirror. There were purple shadows under his eyes, and his thinning blond hair was wispy and dry’; ‘Her distorted reflection [in a kettle this time] was puffy after their sleepless night, her chestnut-brown eyes bloodshot’).
Don’t describe things from an unseeing point of view – there’s no such thing: ‘Ruth gazed out of her kitchen window over the crisp whiteness … at the abbey … and the panoramic view … Ruth saw none of it.’ Again: ‘Neither boy spared a glance for the familiar view spread out below them: the tiny town of Pagford cupped in a hollow between three hills, one of which was crested with the remains of the 12th-century abbey.’
Don’t smear the point of view: try to keep it anchored, particularly in family scenes. Shifting your point of view lowers the tension, unless there’s a definite payoff.
I imagine going over the manuscript of The Casual Vacancy with the author. I try for a warmly neutral tone, as if I was a trusted family doctor. I’m trying not to say: ‘If only you’d come to me sooner.’ I say: ‘Take your first section … what do I always say in class about openings? Do you remember?’
There’s a pause, but I’ve been here a few times before and I have learned the power of friendly silence. Reluctantly she speaks. ‘The first section of a book is like a front door – welcome your readers in – don’t slam it in their faces?’
‘Exactly right. Which is what you do if you start in the point of view of someone who drops dead, the way you’ve done. There’s no momentum – do you see? – nothing to carry the reader through. And I’m a bit unhappy about the way you keep shifting the point of view. It all gets a bit fidgety. You know how much I like the scene where Kay the social worker visits the problematic Weedon family. We’ve talked about that. A lot of it has to do with the consistency of the point of view. You stuck with Kay.’
‘But you said you liked the discussion at Parminder’s house the night before the council meeting! I’ve not stuck with anybody there!’
‘It’s a great scene, Joanne, but I think something different is happening in it.’ We’re on first-name terms now. There’s some real trust building up. She understands we’re on the same side. On the side of the writing. ‘It’s a group scene, not just a family, and you make a point with your shifts of perspective, that these people aren’t connecting at all – when Parminder pretends to read Kay’s dossier while she thinks her own sad thoughts, but Kay is delighted she’s paying so much attention, and on the next page, where Kay gets bored just when Colin thinks she’s hanging on his every word. Those are great, rather Ayckbournish touches … but sometimes in your scenes the reader gets lost between points of view. At that disastrous dinner party of Samantha’s, there’s a bit in italics, ending, God, you are an arse, Miles, which could just as easily be Gavin’s thoughts as Samantha’s. Do you want to borrow a pencil? Sure you can remember all this?’
‘I worry a bit, Joanne, too, about your use of figurative expressions. Sometimes it seems that you want all heightened language to rise to the same level. Howard Mollison in the deli, for instance, looking at his sun-dried tomatoes. He sees them as ‘ruby seahorses in their herb-flecked oil’. Do you really think Howard would think in those terms?’
‘He might do.’
‘He might do … but it’s pretty unlikely! And that’s why I was so pleased by the way you described Fats not bothering to customise his school uniform with badges or silly tie-knots but wearing it “with the disdain of a convict”. Because that’s exactly the way he wants to see himself. It’s not just a flourish, it’s part of the story. Do you see the difference?’
She seems moved. I see her lean down to open her handbag. It’s a Mulberry. It clicks softly open, and inside there’s another shining handbag, fractionally smaller. I look away, not wanting to pry, as she unfastens a series of beautifully yielding clasps. She seems to have the whole set. They must weigh a ton. Perhaps she has someone to carry them around for her. When she sits up, she’s carrying a hankie. Delicately she blows her nose. I turn towards her slightly. Her eyes are sparkling. It’s an emotional business, the teaching of creative writing. How could it not be, when you’re dealing with something so intimate? And this is the sort of breakthrough moment that makes it all worthwhile. When I look at her more closely, I see that her eyelashes are threaded with diamonds. Her smile is full of mischief, and she doesn’t need to speak to have the last word.