After 15 years of writing about wizards, magic and sorcery, ostensibly for children, J K Rowling has turned her hand to writing a novel for adults.
The Casual Vacancy had no magic for me, although Rowling’s magic touch meant 2.6 million copies were sold before the book actually hit the streets.
Poor old Rowling is rightly angry (and very frustrated) about class-ridden Britain. She's angry about racism and sexism, the small-minded petty bourgeoisie, the smug self-righteous middle class. She’s angry about violence against women and abuse of children.
And oddly, given Rowling’s proven ability to conjure up some loveable boy characters, she’s on a big downer about men. A more miserable bunch of male caricatures it’s hard to imagine — violent, bullying and humiliating, or limp and weak.
From early on, the story is a litany of flinchingly violent blows interspersed with the some vile characters who are just so easy to detest, such as the bumptious, obese petty bourgeois Howard Mollison, and his wife, the mean-spirited, malicious and over-groomed Shirley Mollison.
The title of the book refers to a place on the Parish Council that has become vacant after the death of one of its members (the good guy, Barry). A battle for this seat ensues.
The two sides in the fight are divided over the issue of The Fields council estate and whether it should be included or excluded from the parish catchment area.
On one side are the selfish, self-satisfied and conceited middle classes and the petty bourgeoisie; and on the other, the poor working class (who are portrayed largely as an uncultured underclass), and their supporters such as Parminder the doctor and Kay the social worker.
It’s all a bit Dickensian. I feel like I’ve already watched the TV mini-series. It was okay, but it could have been so much better — more optimistic, more representative of the working class, less of the grotesque caricature, less of a modern-day soap opera.
Jan Moir of the Daily Mail denounces the book for being a “relentless socialist manifesto”. This it is not. It does at times feel relentless, though not with socialism, rather with all that is grim and bleak.
Though Rowling has clearly not forgotten her roots — she loathes social injustice and sees class at the centre of inequality, ultimately she’s too despairing.
Like millions of us she’s looking around Tory Britain in the midst of a world economic crisis and doesn’t like what she sees. But there’s stuff she can’t see, none of us can, such as a confident, organised working class able to stand up and articulate and fight for what it needs and deserves. She cannot see all the dignity that comes from this.
It is, perhaps, of no surprise that Rowling’s gut socialist politics are underdeveloped. She could do worse than use the freedom she’s won from being the richest novelist in history to better understand class politics, how capitalism works and who are the agents for change; she would not be wasting her time to study some of our past battles — victories and defeats — as an antidote to her grim despair.
During the 1980s a feminist publishing house, the Women’s Press, used to publish stuff a bit like this. Much of it was not very memorable but many of the novels it published spoke plainly and simply of women’s experience from a feminist perspective. Casual Vacancy reminded me of this kind of novel. Worthy but dull and rather bleak.