I don’t know why I avoided reading The Casual Vacancy for so long. I get funny about books. So many of them sit on the shelf watching me, waiting for the right moment to pique my attention.
Part of it was probably that the impact of The Casual Vacancy was always going to be compared to Harry Potter. The summer the fourth book was released I remember watching a news piece about the release on Newsround, not knowing who or what Harry Potter was, but knowing that I wanted to read it. I devoured them during the family holiday. For me however, Harry Potter wasn’t the momentous realisation that imagination, magic and reading could bring joy to my life that it was for many other children. It was good, but I already loved reading anyway.
So why did I hesitate at The Casual Vacancy? Maybe, it’s off putting because my copy is a large hardback. I say mine, but whilst it’s spent four years sitting on my shelf, I don’t actually know who owns it. I knew that I would need to have enough time to read it quickly over a short period of time without too many distractions, for whilst Rowling might not be writing about wizards, it’s still her voice that speaks and there’s something about the smoothness of her writing that destroys my awareness of time and compels me to keep going.
Then there’s the dismaying fact that right at the beginning, Barry dies. I’m uncomfortable with death and was quite afraid that things would turn dark and sinister. Voldemort was horrendous, and that’s Rowling being restrained in a children’s book. And yet, whilst the book can hardly be called light and fluffy, it avoided scaremongering. Pity outweighed fear. Each time someone did something atrocious, and the whole book was filled with atrocious acts, I didn’t feel overwhelmed with horror. I felt grateful for my own life and the comforts and protection I’ve been afforded.
The time felt right to read it, and I’m really glad I did. It’s not a fast paced book. It’s more of a journey though cause and effect within society than a streamlined plot with a firm ending. There’s no illusion of ‘happy ever after’ but a recognition that lives don’t just end. When the breath stops in one person the clatter of consequences goes on being absorbed by others.
The Casual Vacancy is a book about society. It’s many perspectives show the blindness we all exhibit towards each other. It highlights the blinkers we wear, like class, education and familiar beliefs, that keep up a wall so that we don’t need to empathise with those different to ourselves. Rowling shows that the spectrum of Padford citizens, including those struggling with fear, hatred, drugs and abuse, are all interconnected human beings. Yes, they’re difficult, tempestuous characters who aren’t always easy to read and at times made me feel nauseous, but they were trying to do the best they could with the limiting beliefs and understanding they had.
Fiction is a route to empathy. And in a divided society like Britain today, we could all do with a little more empathy.