Modern Austen

The Casual Vacancy - J.K. Rowling

So I was a little slow getting around to reading this book.  Honestly, it’s because the last four Harry Potter books felt, well, bloated to be honest. 


                Well, this isn’t Harry Potter.


                It’s Jane Austen with teeth.  And not vampire teeth either.  It’s the claws that come out when you don’t need to have manners.


                One criticism I had of the Potter books was that Potter wasn’t really that much of an outsider.  True, he was disliked by a segment of the school population, but notice which segment.  No, he wasn’t the true outsider.  Hermione always struck me more as the outsider – especially when Harry and Ron get mad at her and cut her out.  In many ways, Rowling returns to that outsider theme, especially the female outsider, in this book.      


                Set in an English town that is being encroached up by a neighboring city, Rowling focuses on a vacancy that rises in the local council when a member dies.   This leads to a clash that reflects class and racial divides that play out when some in the council want to cut out the poor section of the town, a section quasi forced on them due to the nearby city.  The focus is not just on adults, but on their children (or the children they feel some connection to).


                And it is the children that offer both starkness and hope.


                While many of characters take the role of outsider in various ways, two that stand out Krystal Weedon and Suvandiar.  In many ways, Krystal is the opposite of the Boy that Lived.  She is Harry Potter in a world without magic, in a world with drugs.  Krystal’s choices are complicated because of her living situation, the death of Barry Fairbrother (one of the few who cared about her), and her education.  She is both older and younger than her years, and her choices aren’t really choices.  Her starkness is because every society has more than one of her.


                Suvandiar is an outsider in a different way.  While her family is far better off than Krystal, her outsider occurs because she is different in terms of looks and intelligence.  Some critics of the Potter series point out that Hogwarts seems largely a white mass of students.  With Suvandiar (as well as the popular Gaia), Rowling address the issue of race in Britain.  How much of the bullying that Suvandiar endures is due to her looks in terms of body structure, and how much because she is one of few people of color in the school?   While Rowling’s look at race extends beyond the school, though there is a wonderful line from Gaia to Suvandiar about how white their fellow students are.


                One of the tragedies of the book  as well as the starting point of the stories is the death of Fairbrother who of all the characters was doing the most to reconcile all various strands of town life, making places for outsiders of all stripes.  Not only does he provide the vacancy of the title, but he is a reminder of how necessary each individual can be in the community.  His opponent on the council Howard is a reminder of how harmful an individual can be in a community.     


                Rowling’s writing in this adult book is far more subtle and much stronger than her writing in the Potter series.  Like Austen, though with a little less polish, she can subtly twist a phrase, allowing the reader to reach the conclusion or to see something without bashing the point over the reader’s head.  If this book had been Rowling’s premiere work, no doubt she would be poorer than she is today; however, she might be more critically acclaimed.