I read J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books when I was 13 years old and found them gripping.
They fed my imagination, bent reality and turned the idea of what was possible on its head. But I appreciated Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, on a completely different level.
The Daily Mail newspaper denounced the book as a “socialist manifesto”. It isn’t really, but it’s certainly much more overtly political than I expected. It explores the themes of death, sex and relationships warped by society—the human drama of everyday life.
The book takes time to delve into the sharp contradictions of human relationships. And class inequality is the backbone of the storyline.
It opens with the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, leaving a “casual vacancy” on a parish council in the south west of England. His death comes at a pivotal point in a war on the idyllic town’s council.
One faction is angling to cut The Fields housing estate out of the town’s catchment area. This is led by the Mollinson family—small business owners who see the sleepy town as a perfect model of society.
They feel entitled to run the town and keep it ‘untainted’. So they hate the fact that working class children can share classrooms with their own.
They are also desperate to slash funding for an addiction support clinic that the “junkies” and “scroungers” on the estate use.
Barry was the most charismatic of the opposing faction, which fights to keep The Fields within the town boundary and to defend welfare services. This political battle is fought out over the casual vacancy.
The story develops by jumping between characters’ thoughts to explore their contradictions, weakness and strengths. When we first meet Terri, a mother and heroin addict, we only see her through the eyes of her desperate child or scrutinising social worker.
But later her past full of poverty, neglect and abuse is revealed. She is so crushed that she’s barely still there. Yet the battle to strip away the remaining threadbare support for her has already begun.
Sexism is prominent in almost every relationship. One teenager is terrified of his abusive father and frustrated by his cowering mother. Other women live in the shadow of their husbands— bitter at their disregard for their opinions. Women face pressure to be reduced to sexual objects.
Racism appears in classroom bullying as well as racist abuse shouted in streets and in the hurtful jokes of teenagers. But the barely veiled distaste of white middle class characters, especially Shirley Mollinson, towards the Sikh Jawanda family is the most enraging.
The book is grim in many places. There are some purely detestable characters and moments that seem hopeless. But human kindness, compassion and fighting spirit are all also at the centre of the book and it’s well worth the read.
The Casual Vacancy is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848