BY BRENDAN MARTYN
I read the first three Harry Potter books aloud. By the time the fourth one came out my son was able to read it himself so I became redundant as his bedside reader.
Reading them was not a chore. I enjoyed the self-contained world that Harry occupied with his friends and foes and their various struggles. One of the bits I liked most was Harry’s conflict with his non-magic foster family through whom Rowling has a bit of a go at middle England (and by extension middle Ireland) with all its conceits, prejudices and vanities.
In The Casual Vacancy she fleshes out this theme to the very maximum extent. The left and right of the political spectrum is condensed down to a parish council squabble over a housing estate, complete with methadone clinic and burned out cars, that is juxtaposed next to a quintessential English country village, with its hanging baskets and chaps playing cricket on the village green à la the label on a cider bottle. A prominent supporter of the housing estate dies creating the casual vacancy on the parish council and the plot follows the various campaigns to fill the seat.
While the adults are preoccupied with the election a parallel but intertwining narrative plays out around their teenage children, who represent a wide range of human behaviour from undiluted evil and selfishness to heartbreaking vulnerability and compassion.
As we take a coach tour through the secret lives of contemporary teenagers we pass many areas of interest including self-harm, drug abuse, cyber bullying, cyber vandalism, teen suicide, teen sexuality and domestic violence/abuse. There is something in the teenage psyche that impels them to despise their parents, their parent’s generation and everything they hold dear, and the degree to which the teens in The Casual Vacancy wish for (and sometimes bring about) the destruction on their long-suffering dads and mums is almost frightening.
The adult crowd don’t get off too lightly either and, with the exception of the man who dies in the first few pages, there are very few whom I came away liking. Everyone seems to be petty, selfishly motivated, conceited, self-absorbed and destructive – but beautifully described. Rowling does well in maintaining objectivity and not being too obvious about which side she is on even though she is clearly on the side of compassion for the underprivileged.
It isn’t a parable with a clear message, but more of a study in the painterly sense – an often grotesque picture of human goings on but in the end you feel somehow redeemed, one of the very insects you have been peering at through a microscope.