I’ve long said that Harry Potter as a series is about the very best of a generation of young people… and the way all the adults in their lives systemically fail them. The Casual Vacancy is… well. It’s darker and more honest and more painful, and it’s not just the adults who suck: it’s teens failing one another, the indifference the privilege offer the marginalized, and, like the Harry Potter series, love.
Unlike in Harry’s world, though, love can’t save anyone. The good guys often don’t win. Communities deliberately abandon their most vulnerable members to death and despair.
Good goddamn, I loved this book.
Plot plot plot: Okay, so Pagford is a really rich town, and Yarvil is the nearest city. The Fields are a set of low income housing projects stuck between the two, and is technically on the Pagford-side. This pisses off some of the more respectable members of Pagford, so they’ve been working a clandestine war against the Fields and the service-providers working with its residents, like those doctors and social workers working with at-risk families. Barry Fairbrother has been leading the fight against these racist, classist assholes… but Barry’s just died and there needs to be an election. What follows is an exploration of small-town politics, the impact of school bullying, and an exploration of generational poverty. This is Rowling at her most bitter; she explores the casual racism and classism of predominantly white small towns and the ways in which the microaggressions associated with these prejudices interact with larger infrastructural issues to deny access to city services and mental health services. Rowling’s prose is precise and hard, like that angry social worker going off at the bar after work, telling truth and sparing no details. At times, it is a painful read, but it always feels honest and real.
Rowling also emphasizes the redemptive power of female friendship. Ultimately, this is a coming of age novel centered around two girls, Sukhvinder and Krystal, who befriend one another through their rowing team, and who are ultimately split apart because of the classist and racist forces moving through the town. In a novel full of memorable characters, Sukhvinder’s struggles with depression and self-harm as well as Krystal’s struggle to keep her family together emerge as the most powerful and poignant stories. In a nod towards the ephemera framing young women’s coming to adulthood, the novel is punctuated by Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” treated here as a mournful anthem of two lives cut short.
For my fellow Potterheads, here are the very few convergances I noticed:
1. The Fawley family are prominent land-owners
2. Sukhvinder’s thoughts while cutting reminded me of Umbridge’s punishment of Harry in Order of the Phoenix, as does her reflections on her tingling scars.