Krystal had never shot up before … but she knew how to heat the spoon, and about the tiny little ball of cotton wool you used to soak up the dissolved smack, and act as a filter when you were filling the syringe. She knew that the crook of the arm was the best place to find a vein, and she knew to lay the needle as flat as possible against the skin.
Yes, J.K.Rowling is back — though I have to admit, I don’t myself recall passages like this in the Harry Potter sequence, nor all the f***s and c***s or detailed descriptions of a teenage boy’s enthusiasm for porn. It seems unlikely they appeared in the 300-odd pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that were left when I finally abandoned it, unable to put up with it any longer.
After the end of the Harry Potter cavalcade, J.K.Rowling has moved into adult fiction, not with the fantasy novel or the detective story that might have been predicted, but with an ambitious attempt to give an account of a community. The Casual Vacancy explores connections within a rich and picturesque West Country town after the death of a well-liked councillor with a sense of social responsibility.
On the outskirts of historic Pagford there stands a council estate of the most desperate sort: drug addiction and feral children are a plague that most people would very much like to be rid of. One family, the Weedons — a heroin-addicted mother, her ignorant teenage daughter and neglected or abused small son — are particularly worrying. They had been supported and helped by Barry, the councillor who dies at the beginning of the book; now they are struggling against all the odds.
The action is driven by the collapse of the Weedons, and also by a division created by the election to fill Barry’s place. Some candidates want to be rid of all responsibility for the bordering estate, whereas others feel more dutiful towards it. The teenage children of the warring factions step up and start posting libellous remarks about the adults. Disaster follows, together with a thinly disguised homily about the need for communities to stick together and help each other out. So, adult fiction — or adultish: if you want a truly grown-up treatment of very similar themes, I strongly recommend William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth.
The strengths of The Casual Vacancy are in its portraits of the adolescents: the brutal, articulate Fats, always finding the cutting and amusing insult, as well as his pustular sidekick, Arf. Sometimes their stories run to an agenda, like Sukhvinder, bullied and finding refuge in self-harm, or Krystal, who discovers that one way out of her terrible situation would be to have a child and demand a council flat — a decision viewed with sympathy in the novel.
If the teenagers are well conceived and live on the page, the adults are rather less successful. Some, like Simon Price, a thuggish printer, are absurdly violent villains, forever throwing pieces of furniture around; others are very broad caricatures of the aspirational middle classes, Mike Leigh derivatives we’ve seen too many times before.
The plot works reasonably well, though only the Krystal narrative has any real momentum: the election and the anonymous postings don’t build into anything very satisfying. Rowling could have learnt from any number of great election-themed novels in English, such as Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe or C.P. Snow’s The Masters. As it is, the campaign just ends with Simon having to move to Reading, which is not much of a result.
The novel’s greatest flaw is in its slapdash style and limited sense of observation. At a Sikh funeral, ashes are scattered in a Birmingham river and Parminder remembers ‘an overcast day in June, and the stream of tiny white and grey flakes floating away from her’. A metaphorical stream on the surface of a river? Both Maureen, a mistress, and Terri, a heroin addict, have hands like birds’ claws; both a middle-aged surgeon and a teenage girl have their physical attractiveness nailed down to possessing ‘thick black lashes’. Dialogue comes and goes: this is supposed to be the West Country, but the speech of the underclass is generalised cockney, their uneducated status signalled by some ludicrous apostrophes: when Terri claims that something is her own ‘bus’ness’, says ‘duz yer mum’ or asks ‘is ’e comin’ round?’, it’s not indicating pronunciation but her social class. It’s sometimes difficult to see the dialogue as remotely plausible: ‘You fuckin’ look after him fer a fuckin’ change then, you useless fuckin’ smackhead cow!’
Clichés abound too: abdominal muscles are ‘chiselled’, breezes are (frequently) ‘gentle’ and small country towns are ‘sleepy’. Rowling obviously takes an interest in abstruse vocabulary — ‘annealed’ gets an outing here — but she ought to make sure of the meanings of simpler words. When a character is reported as ‘prodding the bubbling spaghetti’ when it is in a pan of boiling water it’s a sign of an author not paying attention — you can’t prod water, or the thing that is bubbling, which is not the spaghetti. When another character is compared to ‘an aggressive and threatening barnacle’ the reader thinks that his experience of barnacles appears to be different from Rowling’s. The mode of writing is of an abstract and elevated terminology, an imprecise rendering of the sort of things Henry James used to say: ‘He had realised that she was taking this uncharacteristic act of assertion as a tacit confession of those things he was determined to avoid saying.’
The Harry Potter books valued community and joint responsibility; here, Rowling has removed the idea from secret societies of wizards and tried to examine it in a contemporary, realistic context. I admire her commitment to continue as a novelist, and to attempt something as ambitious as an account of rural life. If only it had rested on a more solid ground of observation and considered, polished prose, The Casual Vacancy might have lived up to its fine purpose.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012