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Enemies of the estate: JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy gives us little to laugh at

The Casual Vacancy
J K Rowling
Little, Brown, 512pp, £20

J K Rowling, in the long run-up to the publication of her first novel for adults, has stressed her sense of freedom. She does not need to please; she doesn’t have to worry about sales – at least, not in any of the more obvious ways. Reviews aren’t going to affect the fate of this book. Over the past five years, she has written exactly what she wanted to write. She can be as offensive as she likes. And she is.

The plot of The Casual Vacancy, so long protected, is now in the public domain and everybody knows it is set in the pretty, little West Country town of Pagford, where a parish councilor has died suddenly in his early forties, bequeathing bitter disputes over who will be his successor. The back of the dust jacket portrays the skyline of Pagford as a Rorschach blot, a black, bat-like image against a blood-red sky, representing the divided community, the sheep and the goats, the old town and the sink estate of the Fields. Feudal Pagford, with its lord of the manor and sycophantic tradesmen, is trying to rid itself of the estate and its drug dealers and drug clinic. It’s class warfare: bourgeoisie against those on benefits; delicatessen owners against babies reared on crisps and Rolos. Winterdown, the local comprehensive school, is the spring and source of much of the action, as teenagers fight it out with sex, alcohol, nicotine, treachery and bullying and teachers strive to moderate adolescent anarchy.

Winterdown is not very much like Hogwarts. Maybe Rowling has had regrets about her magical idealisation of the public school, its ancient buildings and arcane sports, its dormitory feasts and competing school houses. Here we are plunged into the gritty realism of foul-mouthed adolescence, into a serious attempt at authenticity and “real life”. There’s no Butterbeer or pumpkin fizz: it’s vodka and smack. She is good on the horror of teenage boys and their mysterious pecking order and longing for female flesh. These boys hate their fathers as violently as Harry Potter hated his Uncle and Aunt Dursley but they express their Oedipal loathing more dangerously and with far fewer inhibitions.

The language of this novel is startling. Had it been building up angrily inside its author as she smiled politely, queen and idol of millions? The prose is peppered with fucking and wanking and shagging and screwing, with prozzies and lezzers and tits and mams. “You stupid fuckin’ junkie bitch, they’ll kick yer ou’ the fucking clinic again!” yells the doomed heroine Krystal to her tragic, heroin-addicted mother, Terri, in a characteristic outburst.

The language doesn’t always work and Rowling is not very good at dialogue. The most unfortunate aspect of the book is her would-be rendering of pleb- or prole-speak. She is clearly on the side of the estate against the snobs but she does her cause no service with the weird and not very West Country dialect she transliterates: abbreviations such as “wuz”, “wha”, “ter”, “oo”, “nuthin”, “leggo”, “gerrout” and “couldja” culminate in “lurgycachsun”, which takes some time to decipher as “allergic reaction”. This can be very distressing on the page and appears, unintentionally, to condescend to the very characters whose lives she is trying to rescue. The most sympathetic person in the book is poor three-year-old Robbie, with his drooping nappies and scabby bottom, but he doesn’t have much of a speaking role.

She doesn’t seem to like many of her characters much, although some are allowed a form of redemption in the last chapters. A novelist has no obligation to create likeable characters, particularly in a polemic, but there is a kind of rising disgust that goes beyond satire and seems like an allergic, anorexic reaction to the human body, a disgust familiar to teenagers, caught between lust and physical self-loathing. The cleverest, most popular and most destructive boy in the book is spidery and skinny and is thus nicknamed “Fats” but the most repulsive person is the 64-year-old deli owner and chair of the council, Howard Mollison, who is appallingly obese as well as morally contemptible: “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.”

This obesity features in one of the most powerful moments of the plot, in which Mollison’s female Sikh GP retaliates in council for his attempts to close the addiction clinic, but it resonates beyond its narrative need. His daughter-in-law Samantha’s vast breasts are not spared either, nor are the “bulging knuckles” of his business partner Maureen, “covered in translucent leopard-spotted skin”.

This is an uncomfortable read and it’s meant to be. The discomfort tends to overwhelm its argument and the writing is not always under control but it makes strong points. The fear and resentment of the Winterdown girls as they row against the “shampoo-advertisement” girls of the posh St Anne’s (in a race that is the novel’s parody of Harry Potter’s game of Quidditch) are tellingly portrayed and we can understand why the schoolgirl Krystal sees freedom in the form of early pregnancy. Her mother, “simultaneously childlike and ancient”, is unsparingly and convincingly evoked. The novel has perhaps more than its fair share of child abuse, OCD, self-harm, paedophilia and incest but that’s because Harry Potterwasn’t allowed anywhere near them.

The contrast between the town and the estate, though extreme, is not at all implausible. It occupies the same territory as Alan Ayckbourn’s 2010 play, Neighbourhood Watch, which was equally satiric and lacking in geniality. But Ayckbourn can make us laugh at his middle-class monsters. Though Rowling claims there is comedy here, there is not much to laugh about.

Margaret Drabble’s “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman” is published by Penguin (£20).

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special