I LOVED Harry Potter. I grew up with Harry Potter. I came across the first book as a skinny, book-loving, know-it-all ten year old (obviously immediately fell in love with Hermoine, or Her-moyne as I pronounced it in my head). I was still young enough to hope for that letter in the post but not quite naieve enough to fully believe it would happen. From that first book I waited every year for the next to come out, Harry Potter becoming a bigger and bigger deal. All of a sudden I wasn’t the only girl at school that read books – EVERYONE was talking about Harry Potter and extremely keen parents were queuing outside bookshops at midnight so their little darling could be the first to have a copy (that wasn’t me). The later books were so big, they were so heavy, and I have wonderful memories of spending a day sunk into a big armchair in our kitchen, the heavy weight of that book in my hands and my mind somewhere else entirely.
So you can see why I was torn when J.K. Rowling released a book that wasn’t Harry Potter. Completely different from Harry Potter. And with mixed reviews by the press. I didn’t read it for a very long time. It sat on my kindle for months, something that I planned to read, at some point, when I got round to it.
Then I was in Northumberland, nestled in a comfy armchair, in front of a roaring fire with 18 miles ran and 45 miles cycled in my legs, and the prospect of a 3 hour train journey the next day, with nothing to read. I opened the Casual Vacancy.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I was hooked from the moment I began reading it. I even thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, looking forward to getting the tube after work on Monday so I could start reading. Despite the hefty size of the book I finished it in a matter of days.
The Casual Vacancy is set in a sweet little village called Padford (imagine the Cotswolds or any number of US films set in English villages), close to a horrible big town called Yarvil. The inhabitants of Padford, by and large, think they are better than the inhabitants of Yarvil, and definitely than the inhabitants of The Fields, the big council estate that falls half way between the two. The book starts with the death of a Padford local council member, and follows the ramifications of that death in the dispute between Padford and The Fields, which is really a class dispute.
Not one of the characters in this book is likeable. In fact, this book brought out bad things in me – I disliked the characters so much I kept wanting to read the book in the hope that something bad was about to happen to them. Howard Mollinson in particular, the morbidly obese local bigwig, head of the parish council and full of his own self-importance.
I loved J.K. Rowling’s initial description of him which painted an incredibly clear picture:
A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.
I don’t think I’ve ever had this as my first thought but I can clearly imagine him now! There are really funny, sharply observed moments in the book, there is a huge amount of sex (actual, imagined, violent), and there is trauma and bleakness – there is no redemption but only memories left at the end. This is not a book with a happy ending.
HOWEVER … and yes, there is a however. As I began the Casual Vacancy, I asked James’ mum what she had thought. She replied that it was a while since she’d read it but she “definitely enjoyed it, but I can’t remember if I thought it was good or not”. I get that sentiment entirely. The characters were, almost without fail, stereotypes, caricatures. Violent husband, submissive wife, teenage son longing to stand up to his dad, chavvy girl from the estate who sleeps around, middle class woman who drinks too much wine, Asian doctors, nosy, gossipy women… Any stereotype you can imagine and it is there, taken to its extreme. Admittedly, the characterisation of the teenagers is much better than that of the adults – Rowling is clearly at home getting into the minds of teenage boys – and she vividly creates the intensity of a household where domestic violence is common, always on edge. But I must admit, I found the sheer predictability of the types of characters a bit jarring at first before I was fully pulled into the story.
Secondly – and I’ll admit this is a slightly weird criticism and probably a very personal one – but I found many of the sex scenes slightly creepy…. There are a number of passages where the teenage boys are dreaming about sex (as teenage boys do) and there are also a number of passages where the unhappy middle aged wife daydreams about a teenage singer in a band (clearly modelled on One Direction). Knowing who JK Rowling is, knowing exactly what she looks like and with Harry Potter in the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about JK Rowling writing these passages… So much about sex with teenage boys! It’s a strange reaction from me as I haven’t had this in other books, I don’t usually think about the author when I am reading sex scenes. It must be something about the legacy of Harry Potter….
So there we go, a Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling – I would recommend it. It’s not a “fun” read as such but it is very gripping and enjoyable. It is also coming out as a TV series this month which I am very much looking forward to watching! I wonder how it will come out on TV and if perhaps I won’t like it due to having such a clear picture of the characters in my head. I know already that the actor playing Howard Mollinson is nowhere near as fat as I had imagined him to be which has annoyed me slightly already!