The Casual Vacancy is a novel with an interesting premise that falls short of its objective. Rowling’s intention is well and good: to expose the snobbery of the middle classes who denigrate the disadvantaged while doing nothing to help them, but in doing so she has fallen into a kind of snobbery herself.
The Fields: a council estate technically within the boundaries of the small village of Pagford. Many of Pagford’s residents want The Fields reassigned to nearby Yarvil, to rid local schools and facilities of the poisonous poor children of addicts. But Yarvil faces strict government cuts to social services and won’t provide for Fields residents in the same way Pagford has.
At the centre of this municipal debate is Bellchapel, an addiction clinic that is primarily used by Fields residents, and which could be shut down. Barry Fairbrother was a strong campaigner for keeping and improving The Fields in Pagford, but his sudden death leaves an empty seat on the Parish Council. Who will fill it, and how will the election change the fate of The Fields?
This narrative is politically relevant and accurate in its description of gaps and wars between both classes and generations. Rowling employs a distancing and discomforting device by telling much of the story from the empowered and snobbish point of view of Pagford’s adult residents.
Unfortunately, privileging these voices only reinforced that snobbery, since these abhorrent characters were far more rounded and developed than their counterparts. The Fields is an exaggerated and sensationalized portrayal of council housing that turns its residents into stock figures to be pitied by the reader rather than developed personalities.
Typecasts represented include the angry teenage girl raised in poverty, outwardly rude and abrasive but with a golden soul hidden inside her; the empty shell of a heroin addict whose only role is as representative of an addict and has no personality whatsoever; and the social worker who actually cares and might save them.
Tropes such as this – the privileged mother of a universally adored daughter swooping in to save the heroin-addled prostitute and her universally vilified daughter – make this mis-directed social commentary an uncomfortable read.
The male characters are stereotypically full of anger and violence, while the female characters are emotionally panicked, sexually unfulfilled, and constantly gossiping. The representation of ethnic minorities is also a little problematic. Sisters Jaswant and Sukhvinder are of Indian heritage, and Jaswant is put on a pedestal, unattainable because she is so exotic, whereas Sukhvinder is bullied because she is – you won’t believe how offensively clichéd this is – hairy. She does redeem herself to the town though, by trying to save a life. Who knew non-white people could have kind hearts?!
The novel does, however, redeem itself towards the end, as the angry teenagers of Pagford find a clever way to get retribution on their parents. The emotion becomes stronger and more palpable throughout the final tragedy, giving a glimpse of the strong character writing Rowling showed in Harry Potter.
If this novel had been shorter, more selective of the detail it presented, and more considered in its portrayal of its underprivileged characters, it would have shone as a critical rejection of conservatism and government cuts. For a social commentary there is just not enough social commentary.
As it is, it remains limited to a long, waffling, slightly ill-considered and potentially hurtful story of an immoral village.