It was reported that JK Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was going to be very dark and include adult themes and language. I knew I was not going back to Hogwarts when I opened the book, but I was surprised about the nature of this story. This post contains plot spoilers.
Initially, it seemed like the book was about a sleepy town’s local election from the vantage point of the 40-something generation. It was not a topic that particularly excited me, but I was drawn in by Rowling’s excellent story-telling and the way she subtly ridiculed each of her characters as she introduced them. However, as the plot unfolded, the story became less about the adults’ world, and more about the teenagers and the brazen power that they unleashed upon their parents.
The main families represented included the Prices, the Walls, the Jawanadas, and the Weedons. There are excellent facets of the novel that are related to the Fairweathers, Bawdens, Mollisons, Maureen, and Gavin, but the heaviest drama is related to the four very dysfunctional families I just named. In all four cases, the teens are victimized in some way by their parents and retaliate in some brash way that has permanent consequences. The teens, with their bold confidence and righteousness, hold all the power.
The Price family is plagued by a cowardly thief of a father, who is prone to violence against his wife and children. When Simon announces his candidacy for Pagford Parish Council, he seems to become even more violent under the strain. After he is particularly abusive toward his family one night, Andrew (Arf) comes up with a plan to sabotage his campaign. After he posts the truth of his father’s business deals, there are cascading consequences of his father’s job loss, the family’s move to Reading, and his peers’ copycat posts on the council’s website.
The Wall family is led by Colin, an administrator at the school all the kids attend. Colin is plagued by an OCD-fueled paranoia that cripples him. His adopted son, Stuart (Fats), is constantly pushing his buttons and he too becomes violent against his child. This inspires Fats to publicize his paralyzing fear that he will be accused of touching a student and effectively causes Colin to be unable to work and passively withdraw from the campaign.
The Jawanda family is represented by Parminder, who is stoic and extremely critical of her daughter Sukhvinder. She overtly prefers her other two children and neglects Sukhvinder. Sukhvinder is also tormented at school by Fats and threatened by Krystal Weedon. When Sukhvinder tries to confess her issues with Krystal to her mom, and is berated once again for her shortcomings, she decides to retaliate by posting gossip about her mother’s love for the late Barry Fairbrother on the council’s website. The stress of this post and the election itself causes Parminder to snap and lose her temper at a council meeting and ultimately costs her her job as the town’s General Practitioner.
The Weedon family is essentially led by a teenager, Krystal, who is trying to keep her junkie mother and 3 year old brother together. The mother, Terri, does not do a good job of looking after either of her kids even when she is clean. Krystal has behavioral problems, but she does try to keep her brother in preschool, get herself to school, and keep track of her mother’s habits. After Krystal suffers rape in her own home by her mother’s dealer, she becomes determined to get pregnant by Fats, so she can get a teen mom subsidy and have a safe place to live with her baby and her little brother, Robbie.
When Krystal finds the drug dealer in her mother’s home again, she takes off with Robbie and makes a plan to meet Fats in the park. In her desperate quest to become impregnated there, she takes her eyes off of Robbie and he drowns in the nearby river. With his death on her hands, Krystal intentionally overdoses herself on her mother’s heroin stash.
The adults in this story were all the initial perpetrators of abuse and neglect, but the teenagers made decisions that had extreme and tragic consequences. The adults were always behaving badly while going about their day to day lives. The teens made active decisions to cause changes in their lives. They may not have realized the full consequences of their actions, but they knew they were doing something big and intentional.
Yes, this story has adult themes, but these are themes that impact real teenagers too. The language, sex, drugs, and family drama will not be foreign to most teens. The politics may bore some, but that is just the backdrop to the real story of teenagers and the power struggle with their families. I’d say this is a Young Adult novel disguised as an adult fiction.