For more thoughts on this and other bits of British nerdery, consider my eponymous blog: The Scruffy Rube.
Picturesque, pristine, and pleasant.
That’s the general tone that surrounds a lot of the English villages in my favorite British literature. Jane Austen wrote about scores of them, John Fowles’ beloved Lyme has the same tenor. So I wasn’t terribly surprised when I started reading JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy to find that she too had chosen to write about a seemingly serene little town, but Rowling’s setting was far seedier than her predecessors might dare to write.
The Casual Vacancy is about as far from the world of Harry Potter as you might care to go. The depressingly mugglefied air of Pagford village, could seems like a town so run-of-the-mill that it defies anything to be dramatic. But Rowling thrives when describing self-contained worlds that struggle for security and, to some extent, secrecy. That’s where an insular, overly-protective small town jives neatly alongside the vanishing charms and invisibility cloaks of the wizarding world.
The two worlds connect again when Rowling turns her focus to writing about local teenagers, jaded by familial outrage and dedicated to personal interest. She has a masterful method for writing the tortuous logic and emotional angst that typifies teenagers, but her real talent lies in reflecting that same behavior in adult characters. Thus helping teens seem less immature and more relevant to the adult world that surrounds them.
At times it felt like Rowling dropped “gritty” bits of writing (profanity and eroticism) as a way of proving: “I’m not just the Harry Potter lady”, even if they weren’t terribly relevant or valuable to the story. But at its core, The Casual Vacancy shows the same strength of authorial imagination that put Rowling (and Harry) on the map in the first place.
It doesn’t take much to see The Casual Vacancy in a post-colonial light. The most powerful residents hold tightly to a sincere belief in their own superiority, condescending to tell another group of people how they should be living their lives. When some make an effort to put the powerful and the powerless on a more equitable footing, those in power do all they can to stop it. [And that doesn’t even touch on the overt disdain reserved for the one Indian family in town, a particularly bitter–though likely accurate–pill to swallow]