Book Review : The Causal Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
When J.K. Rowling’s first novel written for an adult audience was released, the critics did not do it justice. Some complained that there was no magic in it — “in terms of wizardry or in terms of narrative sorcery,” according to Michiko Kakutani. Kakutani went on to say that the inhabitants of Pagford were “self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.”
I disagree. First of all, the fact that the critic could pinpoint such descriptive characteristics illustrates Rowling’s prowess with defining well-developed, absorbing characters. You can’t help but think, “Well, that’s just so very like Parminder/Howard/Gavin/Mary to do/think/say something like that.”
Secondly, the small-mindedness of Rowling’s suburban characters speaks to themes she often talks about in interviews about her writing: mortality, courage, snobbishness. The seamier side of life in a small town is deftly told through interwoven stories about how different adults and teenagers in the small town react when one of their own drops dead. If the concerns and reactions of some of the town’s leading citizens seem self-absorbed and small-minded, that only speaks to Rowling’s point about the confining nature of suburbs.
Just as the Harry Potter series made me feel like I could sit down with Rowling and talk about how to entwine the magical with the everyday, this book snuck in themes that are near and dear to my heart: the impacts of bullying, the status-consciousness of the middle class suburbs, and that old writer’s standby: “pride goeth before a fall.”
What all of Rowling’s books have in common is minute attention to plot details; every single one of the many story lines is wrapped up in an ending that ties them together in a crescendo that leaves no room for misinterpretation. In the end Rowling’s message is clear: hypocrisy is not a victimless crime. Indifference to the poverty next door to the mansion has real-life consequences.
My favorite character development in the novel is the complicated descriptions of Krystal, a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who inarguably makes repugnant decisions and treats others in a repugnant manner. Yet when you see how the “good citizens” dissect Krystal and her drug-addicted mother behind close doors, as if they were a failed social experiment thrust upon the town, you buy into Rowling’s steadfast insistence that, however stereotypical the Weedons may be, they are people and not statistics.
Most importantly, Rowling’s characters do not present as cardboard cutouts, and do not stay mired in their shallow side. From one situation to the next, no one character offers one stock reaction. The bully or braggard in one plot twist becomes the sympathetic underdog in the next one. The hopelessly status-conscious and judgmental Shirley Mollinson is complex enough to win the reader’s sympathy when the realities of her husband’s infidelity come crashing down in a cruel and ironic manner. The above-mentioned Parminder is clearly stigmatized by racism in the community, shows a sort of hard-nosed compassion for her patients, yet wins no sympathy when she cruelly berates and belittles her tormented daughter Sukhvinder. But because we have seen Parminder’s complex inner thoughts when she deals with the outside community, her evolution toward understanding and sympathy for her daughter is believable at the end where it could have come across as sappy in the hands of a less deft writer.
In the end, the characters are undone not by their outward status-seeking actions, but by their failure to express their inner thoughts in time to save themselves. The characters who walk into the sunshine out of their personal hell are the ones who are finally able to vocalize or act on the doubts that they have been secretively thinking throughout the book.
Rowling has said in interviews that the quality she admires most is courage; she has stated emphatically that it is Harry’s courage that saves him from one section to the next. Casual Vacancy plays upon this theme in a more complicated manner. Each character behaves outwardly as if status is the only thing that matters. Yet each harbors inward doubts and resentments toward the social hierarchy status-seeking creates. In the end, it is the characters who find the courage to either vocalize or act on their doubts and insecurities that walk out their personal hell and into the sunlight.