J. K. Rowling’s new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, has been described by the press as a novel about class and poverty, one drawing inspiration from Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot and which some say is “doomed to be known as Mugglemarch.”
Billed as “a big novel about a small town,” The Casual Vacancy takes up issues of addiction, sexual assault, incest, racism, and self-harm, in addition to engaging more broadly with issues of class and poverty.
“But,” wrote Theo Tait for The Guardian, “these sections of the book are a little too laborious and programmatic to be truly harrowing: like a detective series dutifully dealing with "social issues", it seems to come at the underclass story via what we already know from journalism, or from social workers, rather than inhabiting it from the inside.”
The Casual Vacancy is certainly a novel that deals with classism, with petty citizens who disapprove of the town’s Sikh doctor showing up to the funeral in a sari, and tries to hold a mirror up to the ugliness that lies just beneath the veneer of middle-class sensibility. But to be a novel about poverty, it isn’t nuanced enough.
Social commentary in The Casual Vacancy often leaves you with the same feeling as its sex scenes. It’s as if Rowling sat down and thought to herself, “Right. This is a book for adults, so every five or ten pages I should drop in a mention of condoms, sex, or vaginas to make sure everyone’s got it.” In some places, it works; in most, it seems artificial.
Here's the basic geography of The Casual Vacancy: it's primarily set in Pagford, a sleepy and relatively prosperous West Country town. Pagford is close to Yarvil, a larger and seedier almost-city. In between the two is Fields, a neighborhood made up of cheap metal council houses encroaching on the boundaries (and the tax dollars) of Pagford. Most Pagford residents want the neighborhood to be reassigned to Yarvil to keep Fields kids out of their schools and safeguard the town's middle class sensibility; a few others are dedicated to keeping Fields assigned to Pagford to make sure its addiction clinic stays open that that its residents have some form of support.
In the novel, Rowling writes that “nearly two-thirds of Fields dwellers lived entirely off the state; and that a sizeable proportion passed through the doors of the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic.” Horrified that the children of single mothers and junkies will be allowed “to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yarvil accents,” the anti-Fields contingent of the Parish Council seize the opportunity provided by the death of pro-Fields councilor Barry Fairbrother. his spot with someone who’d help them shift the boundary line.
When it comes to issues of class, the novel reads more as an exploration of petty infighting and social dynamics in a solidly middle-class parish than as an investigation of poverty in modern England. Though the question of what will become of Fields drives most of the plot, readers are left unmoved thanks to underdeveloped characters.
The Weedons are the only family from the Fields to get their own story line; the rest of the estate’s inhabitants are painted with broad and relatively vague strokes.
Rather than giving us, say, a handful of characters from Pagford and a handful from Fields, Rowling uses Krystal Weedon and her family as the stand-in for an entire population with vastly different lived experiences with poverty and discrimination. Krystal seems to be intended to symbolize all of the trauma to be to found in Fields, as well as all of what’s good about it. And in doing so, she comes off as reductive and archetypal. It’s a disservice to the complex social issues she’s meant to represent, not to mention her own story line.
Rowling had extensive personal experience with the British welfare system in a previous life, and her commitment to analyzing the social dynamics in this small, closed-off town reads are genuine. But since most of the novels’ characters are Pagford residents, not Fields-dwellers, that’s the perspective from which we see this world: Fields becomes the prism through which various characters grow or reveal their inner ugliness, not a living community.
The Casual Vacancy reads better as a novel about attitudes towards poverty, welfare, and addiction than it does about the lived experience of these things – but, perhaps, that’s what it was trying to do all along.
Those who, like me, literally grew up with Harry Potter will find a lot of love here, but they’d be advised to go in with two warnings. One: the world of Pagford is a lot like Privet Drive, without the promise of warmth, magic, and broomsticks to escape on, and two: though The Casual Vacancy may introduce millions of readers worldwide to some of the issues related to modern British poverty (and at some points it seems like one of Rowling’s motivations is to use her stature, and the knowledge that most people would buy her book no matter what, as an opportunity to educate the public), it shouldn’t be mistaken for a complex or complete analysis of poverty and class.
Perhaps, in the same way that Harry Potter was a compelling advertisement for reading for pleasure for millions of people, The Casual Vacancy will serve as an introduction: to Alan Bennett, to Irvine Welsh, and to the scores of other British writers engaging with class in a more thorough and complicated way.