I’m a great admirer of JK Rowling both as an author, and on a personal level. So when I knew she’d published her first adult novel, I was keen to read it.
When I began to read The Casual Vacancy several months ago, I found it a struggle to get through the unrelenting nastiness of the characters, without finding any one individual I could identify or empathize with. And at that time I chose to put it down.
Nevertheless, I was determined to come back to the novel later when I felt ready to tackle it. And I’m glad I did. I very quickly began to recognize elements from the hometown of my childhood – local characters & social/political/economic issues.
When the author begins to fill in the backgrounds of the characters, giving them greater depth, I started to feel, at some level, empathy for Terri, and for Krystal, and for their terrible plight – and glimmers of humour also relieved the grimness of the characters’ behaviour.
JKR inspires both pity & anger with her waspish vignettes of mothers who betray their children with submissiveness, moral weakness & cowardice, & fathers/husbands who trample close relationships with arrogance, intolerance & cruelty, & teenagers full of hatred & resentment. She also penetrates right to the heart of class consciousness & snobbery, & those who live with an innate sense of ‘superiority’. These attitudes riddle our society, & our hearts & souls; they blight lives, destroy hope, & ensure injustice and inequality prevails. They lower people’s self-esteem and propagate lies that last a lifetime. All this JKR skilfully conveys in The Casual Vacancy.
I found many sharp portrayals: the conversation as a social worker visits a drug addict; the inner life of a bullied teenager as she self harms, her situation made worse by a harsh, unsympathetic mother; the fragile threads upon which a drug addict’s rehabilitation depends; the pressures at home which force teenagers into depraved company and behaviour. JKR accurately conveys the effect that going to a certain sort of school has on one’s sense of self-worth, and upon the choices one makes in one’s friendships and future life.
It’s clear to me that the characters in this novel are behaving ‘their’ way – in other words, the default setting of human nature. It would be pointless and disingenuous for any of us who live in contemporary English society to pretend that we cannot recognize something murky of ourselves somewhere in this novel: something that points up the ‘devices and desires’ of our own hearts.
However, although I enormously admire what JKR has done in this story, I still feel it lacks a strong enough spiritual message or act of redemption at the end; and the potential for that is very strongly present as the narrative progresses.
JKR may not have wished to commit herself to an explicit spiritual message in the novel. But I cannot help feeling there is clear potential for an authentic Christian witness in this story, pointing to a different attitude, a different way of life.
Jesus knew all about the default setting of human nature, and the untrustworthiness of the human heart.
In John’s Gospel we read these words : But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside & out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.
For The Casual Vacancy is, to me, essentially a story of ourselves as we are, now, in our communities, in our society today, just as we always have been; unredeemed, doing things ‘our way’ and not God’s way, and reaping the consequences. It’s only JK Rowling’s decision not to take the opportunity for a stronger redemptive message which prevents me from giving her book the highest possible rating.