Casual Vacancy 1: The Harry Potter Echoes

by John on October 2, 2012

Here is the first of what I hope will be twelve Casual Vacation discussion threads for those Serious Readers who have read the book at least once and long to share ideas with friends. Before I begin, I want to say I found the Vacancy a very difficult experience, profoundly challenging, and personally edifying, even transformative. I won’t be able to explain that in any depth right away so I worry that the critical quality of these first posts may mislead many to a false conclusion, namely, that I did not enjoy and do not recommend the book to mature, older readers.

There is a lot to discuss, though, beyond my ‘take away’ from a hurried reading. Lest I neglect the obvious, if you don’t want the story’s plot points spoiled before you read it, stop reading now. Buckled up? Here we go –

Casual Vacancy begins, as many noted, with ‘The Man Who Died,’ which seems, along with the consonance of the names Barry and Harry to be a pointer to the inverse meanings of the Hogwarts Saga and Casual Vacancy. Ms Rowling has denied the Harry-Barry link in interviews and the text supports her defensiveness; I certainly expected at least one Harry Potter allusion in the book and there wee quite a few places where one would have been fitting in such a realist piece (e.g., Simon Price’s ritualistic verbal abuse of his sons). She seems to have chosen deliberately to not ‘go there,’ if you will.

Outside of the seven part structure, about which see thread #7, the boy locked in his cupboard for days making national mews reports, the yew tree under which the family of ‘others’ stands at Krystal’s funeral, the constant echoes of the cartoonish Dursleys in the strawman Mollisons (especially Vernon-Howard), and the barren Mrs Wall’s kinship with Mrs Weasley in dress and cares, I was left with a blank on Potter-Vacancy surface parallels.  When Fats “wished he could simply be transported, this instant, to his attic bedroom” from his reefer hook-up with Krystal in the graveyard (Part 2, chapter X), I thought, “He wants to Apparate — and there’s no way a boy his age now wouldn’t think, ‘I wish I could Apparate’.”

But maybe I’m all wet? Please share the points of correspondence in the surface of the story that I’m missing, points that jumped right out at you. We’ll get to the Seven Keys, if you will, soon enough; for this thread, let’s focus on the surface narrative!

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelly October 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm

I felt like Krystal’s life could’ve been what Snape’s life was like if he didn’t have both magic and a love that redeemed him. Krystal’s redeeming quality is her love of her brother, but in her desperation to save him she fails him – but, I felt her failure was more due to her mentor’s death (Fairbrother-Dumbledore) leaving her no one to look up to, whereas Snape returns to Dumbledore who shows him the right way.

Sara October 2, 2012 at 9:51 pm

Kelly, what an interesting parallel between Krystal and Severus. That is something I’m going to think about.

John, I am so glad to see you have put this up, as I’ve been wanting to discuss this book with people! Thank you for starting this.

Like you, I immediately thought of Apparition when Fats wanted to transport himself… But then again, I think if Apparition and how handy it could be in my own life at least once a week or so. :)

Also, of course, the boy locked up in the closet… there was an element of horror in reading that, because of course we’ve all seen that before, in a very different context, but now with this, your eyes are suddenly opened to the gruesomeness of it.

I also got a general sense of what I felt when I read about Merope Gaunt and Ariana Dumbledore. Two of the saddest characters in the series. And to a lesser degree, the young Tom Riddle. Without Krystal, Robbie’s circumstances would have been very similar. And we never really will know what horrible things Tom may or may not have been exposed to in that orphanage. (Sure, by age 11 we know he’s fairly proficient with his magical abilities, but it’s not like he was born with the ability to crucio anyone who would abuse him. It was a defensive skill he would have had to build up over time. What WAS he defending himself against in this very early years?)

Okay, I didn’t mean to turn this into a discussion only about Potter…. But I think that it’s those darker sides of the Potter series, that this book shows us the reality on which she based them.

Kelly October 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Sara, I like what you said about Tom Riddle, Merope Gaunt and Ariana Dumbledore. I did wonder as I was reading CV, because the book was just so real, if while Jo was writing Harry Potter she was very conscious of the fact that her book was fictional. And maybe because she herself had experienced too much of “reality” that maybe she felt a bit guilty (or was simply restricted by the fact that she was writing for children) for not showing just how awful the reality of these situations really are, while she was immersed in Harry’s fictional world. Personally, I would like to remain immersed in Harry’s fictional world as often as possible, but “it does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” I don’t think Jo has forgotten, nor will ever forget, how she once lived. It is not good for us to forget, either, that there are people around us whose lives may be complicated and difficult in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

Louise Freeman October 8, 2012 at 11:42 am

OK, finally finished the audiobook. Here’s what reminded me of Harry.

Sukhvinder, as a learning-disabled child in a family of academic achievers and doctors, struck me as a type of squib, uncertain where she fits in her world. It was good to see her growth and kindness in the end with the funeral arrangements.

Her reaction to the service was very similar to Harry’s at Dumbledore’s: she tunes out the prattling from the nameless clergy-person who didn’t really know the deceased, and fills in the void with her own memories.

The world of the Fields was, in a way, its own parallel to the Wizarding World in that it is largely invisible (or distorted) to regular folk. The Mollison’s, Dursely-like, prefer to pretend it don’t exist. Muggles see an abandoned castle where Hogwarts stands and a boarded up building with a broken phone booth instead of the Ministry of Magic. Kay assumes Terri’s burn scars are from a drug-related accident when they are actually from a horrific child abuse incident. Pagfordians see Krystal merely as a trouble-making truant; the reality is that she is often home from school tending her brother and cleaning the house to make it ready for the social worker. Even her final “roll in the hay” that leads to Robby’s tragic drowning was not, as everyone assumed, a rebellious teenager out partying but part of a well planned scheme to save herself and her brother from their hidden world of rape, abuse and neglect.

Louise Freeman October 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Oh, another one. Krystal’s fantasy about meeting and going to live with her never-seen sister. Harry found his wizarding family who took him away from the horror of the Dursley’s; Krystal never does.

Tinuvielas October 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Louise, I too saw the parallel between Harry and Sukhvinder. Both Harry and Sukhvinder are neglected, misunderstood outsiders living without love in their families and suffering discrimination at school (albeit with a couple of friends). Like Harry, Sukhvinder is a person who suffers and discovers the hard way where her true strength lies, and who eventually risks her life to save others and becomes a hero. Insofar as she is a character who changes, who gets to know herself and gets others to recognize her worth in the end, and especially because hers is the final point of view in the book (always an important marker), she could be considered the ‘heroine’ of the story – though of course I wouldn’t want to use this term in the Hollywood-sense or overstress the similarities, the outsider-thing for instance being true for other characters as well, and also being a postmodern stock-characteristic (hat-tip to John).

Anyway, if you interpret Sukhvinder – who’s probably the one person who’s really better off after the tragic events, rejoined to her family, active and firmly anchored in life – as a heroine somewhat in the vein of Harry, then the similarities between the ‘secondary’ or tragic heroes Krystal and Snape which Kelly mentioned become even more obvious, and not only because the last scene of CV is a redeeming memory of Krystal, similar to Harry naming his son ‘Albus-Severus’. Both Krystal and Snape are twisted, not quite sympathetic but essentially positive characters from a poor background, outsiders (what else…) in their social sphere (the sphere of the novel), not always acting correctly by any standards, maligned by the world and doing their good deeds – i.e. loving someone – in comparative secrecy and imperfect bitterness. Both fail to protect their loved ones, because they succumb to ‘vice’ (is that what Krystal is doing?) or rather, because they are subjected to it, and deluded, and because they lack love and therefore do not trust.

This motif of secrecy, or rather, the lack of communication (and trust) leading to tragedy, was – for me – the most striking resemblance between the two books. In both tales there is a crucial scene where someone is driven to extreme, secretive action trying to save a loved person, and by this helpful (if desperate) action ends up causing the death of a loved one, precisely because they don’t communicate and ask for help – because they are convinced that their view of the world is right (postmodern topic again, here). It isn’t a one-to-one thing, of course – but the similarities are there, on the level of deep structure: Harry sets out alone to save tortured Mr. Weasley from evil Voldemort instead of telling teacher (and tutor) Snape, or indeed his fatherly friend Sirius, who goes after him underground to help and dies. Krystal sets out to save (abused?) Robbie from evil Obbo instead of telling social worker Kay or, indeed, her friend Sukhvinder who (literally) goes after Robbie under water and is wounded, while Robby dies. In consequence Harry feels guilty and desperate and shreds Dumbledore’s office; Krystal feels guilty and desperate and kills herself (thus joining her dead loved one; the same motif shows up in Harry’s ‘final’ moments when he uses the stone).

Like I said it isn’t a one-to-one thing: themes and motifs and traits from one character in HP resurface in several characters in CV, and each character in CV echoes others in HP. I thought there was an echo of Sirius in Howards lesbian daughter, for instance, as well as in Krystals recklessnes and the way they both deal with a really cruel fate by by simply going on, by loving in spite of everything, not quite succeeding, and, in the end, by taking action and dying almost as an escape (which conjunction of loving and dying of course leads directly to John’s point no. six… where, I hope, he’ll have said something about the relations of sex and love respectively to death… ;-) )

Eeyore October 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm

I just finished The Casual Vacancy. It took me much longer than any of the Harry Potter books. I got it just before we left on a 10 day trip to Massachusetts and while we were there, I didn’t have much time to read. So I feel like I need to go back and reread it already.

Harry Potter always had things that made me smile, which is quite different than Casual Vacancy. Very little made me smile, even some of the ironic moments. There was very little happiness in this book. And yet, the characters were compelling and interesting and I cared what happened to them, much the same as I cared what happened to Harry Potter characters.

I did think of apparition as well. And I noticed some of the direct references to alchemy. I also noticed that the two characters who went in the river underwent a sort of baptism. Robbie, even though he died, was washed away of the squallor that had been what people saw before. Suddenly he was transformed into an angel child whom everyone mourned. Sukhvinder, in going in the water, went through her own transformation.

Krystal, like Harry and Snape, had a mentor in Barry who gave her hope and a sense of purpose. But unlike Harry and Snape, Krystal lost all hope with the loss of Barry, her mentor. There was no one there to help her through all the sadness and tragedies of her life. Harry and Snape always had that.

Where there are a lot of examples of love in Harry Potter, there is love in The Casual Vacancy, but it’s distorted and misunderstood or profaned. Still, the message in both is that love is crucial for people to thrive.

When I started reading, I really had to stop myself making comparisons to Harry Potter. Once I did, it was much easier to get into the book. No magic, just real stark life. I also found myself wondering about the comments that Rowling had made that much of the book was from her own life experiences. Really? Drug abuse? Sexual abuse? The bullying is easy to understand – most of us have seen it even if we didn’t experience it personally. And the racism aimed at Sukhvinder’s family – that’s something that most of us have seen and so would Rowling. But I do wonder about the other. I suspect that she had a much harder life than we really know.

In interviews she has said that most of the characters were having sex but didn’t enjoy it. That’s an understatement. I would add that they didn’t seem to enjoy much in their lives – not family relationships or even friendships. Where we see Harry and Ron and Hermione and later Neville, Ginny and Luna being loyal to each other and finding ways to have fun with each other, there’s very little of that with the characters in Casual Vacancy.

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