author – activist – faculty – mom
As a busy working mom, I am often late to pick up the latest anything. I’m impressed that I’m only a year behind in reading The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first adult book since her wildly successful Harry Potter series. I LOVED this book, which I listened to in audio format, just like I loved Allison Pearson’s work (see previous post). I found both these women from the British isles to be so sharp on issues of socioeconomic class. Having been so taken with The Casual Vacancy, I was surprised to find it got mixed reviews. What I found so compelling about the book is the fact that it’s a tale of class warfare in a small, provincial English town, and Rowling paints the snobbery, racism, sexism, violence, desperation, hypocrisy, and oppression of young people with a brilliant clarity. The plot centers on the “casual vacancy” caused by a death on the town council that leads to an election which will decide whose class interests a newly reconfigured council will serve.
I think the biggest genius of the book is that it’s plotted like a thriller. In a talk on the history of the thriller, author Ken Follett discusses how thriller writers create a constant sense of danger for characters and anxiety for readers that makes it hard to put a book down until the tension is resolved. For this reason, many thrillers focus on major international crises or wars in which the fate of the world is often at stake. According to Follett, in the middle of the book, just as readers may be getting accustomed to the constant state of tension, the writer often ups the ante with a device he calls “the conversation with the Prime Minister.” He describes this as “a vivid way of reminding the reader of that larger [geopolitical] issue which is at stake. “By the middle of the story we’re very, very focused on fate of the principal characters and the danger that they’re in. And we just want a reminder that they’re not just fighting for themselves, so there’s a phone call or there’s a meeting at #10 Downing Street…where somebody says to somebody else ‘you do realize that the entire course of the war could hang on what you’re doing for us.’” He is illustrating his point with books about World War II, a war which completely reshaped the world as we know it.
In The Casual Vacancy, this is precisely JK Rowling’s genius. The fate of the world will be completely UNaffected by what happens in Pagford. However, Rowling has created such a closed, contracted, insular world in this town, where everyone’s physical, economic, social, and emotional survival is at stake, that we experience, through the characters, a level of urgency to the class war that rivals World War II. Rowling calls it “the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society.” It is precisely because the fictional town of Pagford is so small, so provincial, where everybody knows everybody, and their world is so tiny that the process and outcome of this election will make or break the lives of all the people in the book one way or another.
Rowling is a master plotter. Throughout the book, she gets into the heads of so many characters, that we can see each of their desperate wants, fears, secrets, and vulnerabilities. As they interact with each other, we see some kind of train wreck coming, but can’t quite predict the time or location of the pileup. The cause and effect of the plot is brilliantly woven into an interdependent and sticky web that will ensnare everyone.
I was particularly impressed by the way Rowling, a white woman, nailed the portrayal of race in the town, choosing to feature a lone Sikh Indian family bearing the brunt of the town’s racism.
“I just needed to write this book,” Rowling said in an interview with the New Yorker, “I like it a lot, I’m proud of it.” I hope Rowling hasn’t been discouraged by the mixed reviews and continues to write about class warfare.
Critics have complained about the ending (spoiler alert) but I would disagree. The book opens and closes with the deaths of two characters, both of whom came from deep poverty, but had access to some level of upward class mobility. The first death, that of the town councilor Barry Fairbrother, sets the entire plot in motion. The final death is that of the young woman whom he mentored, Krystal Weedon. But the book uses the deaths of both of these characters to illuminate the key role that certain people can play as change agents in creating a more egalitarian society. Fairbrother has deep loyalty to the poor community he was raised in, but has access to middle class tools and an entre to middle class society. Unconstrained by the history of an emotionally stifling middle class upbringing, he is relaxed, playful, earnest, and effective. He sees himself in Krystal, and fiercely mentors her. We see that Krystal was poised to play a similar role for the young women in her generation, but the loss of Fairbrother, and a more vicious set of poverty circumstances close in on her. In the midst of the tragic ending, Rowling finally reveals the flashback scenes that celebrate Krystal’s triumph, and celebrate the key role Fairbrother played in mentoring her. The book not only chronicles the tragedy of two lives ended too soon, but also uses the tragedy to illuminate exactly what has been lost. Poor and working class people’s contributions are so invisible and taken for granted that their important leadership potential is made more stark and striking in the wake of their loss.
Rowling says, “this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.” I’m certainly pleased with the way that Rowling has used her platform of commercial fiction success to explore class and is still rooting or the underdog.