I have finally read The Casual Vacancy, motivated in good part by wanting to be able to read and enjoy your posts about it. And indeed, as I read through the beginning of the book, as many others who responded to your posts have said, I might not have continued reading if it weren’t for that motive. Mysteries were introduced (“What was Krystal going to be interviewed concerning?” and then “What was the terrible thing Tessa Wall did?”), but the main and most compelling mystery for me was, “Why did J.K. Rowling, who can write so beautifully, write this???? “ You had said before the book came out that as an “adult” book, it was likely to contain foul language and sex scenes – but even thus forewarned, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “but to such a degree???”
However, by the end of what turned out to be, I thought, a beautiful – if very sad – story, I understood why. And I am moved by what I imagine to be JKR’s story – that of someone who must feel such an awful responsibility for what she writes – knowing that she has the power to reach millions of people all over the world – and choosing how to use it. I could feel that this was a story that came straight from her heart.
So, a bunch of things went through my mind as I read the book, and I wanted to share some of them with you.
As the story drew to its close, I found myself wondering, “Whose fault is all this?” I tried to think this through, but it seemed impossible to unravel it back to the beginning and assign a cause. And I thought perhaps this was JKR’s point – that we are all responsible for, or at least all affect, each other. And then, a few pages later, Tessa Wall thinks (as I found later that many other reviewers had noted), “… it would have been a relief if St. Michael had … enacted judgment on them all, decreeing exactly how much fault was hers, for the deaths, for the broken lives and the mess…” and I thought I guess this is what JKR wanted us to wonder… it’s as if Krystal dies for the sins of everyone else… and then, OH… and her name is KRYSTal.
In terms of (other) things the book shares with the Harry Potter series, I found a few:
Oddly, one of the first that struck me was: Horcruxes. Tom Riddle steals things that mean a lot to him, that connect him to a world where there is beauty, love, and grandeur, e.g., the Ravenclaw diadem. And he wants to stay connected to Hogwarts as the only place he’s ever felt at home. Well, Krystal too tries to attach herself to people who have cared for her or seen good in her by taking a part of them. She has a special box for these treasures that contains Tessa Wall’s watch and later the reefers Fats has given her. (P. 106: “Krystal was much given to sneaking things into her pockets that belonged to people she liked. This box was plastic and decorated with roses: a child’s jewelry box, really. Tessa’s watch was curled up inside it now.”)
I also thought of Tom Riddle’s diary (and also Rita Skeeter’s articles) and the idea of writing as something living that can destroy a person, when I read of Krystal’s reaction to Kay, “Krystal hated folders. All the stuff they wrote about you, and kept, and used against you afterwards.” (p.108) And later, she chooses her desperate strategy with Fats over turning to Kay because “Kay was still the keeper of the folders.” (p.450)
But I think the most striking similarity to me is the question of “What is real?” Harry Potter famously builds up to the scene at King’s Cross where Harry asks, “Is this real or is it in my head?” In Vacancy, people are estranged both from their internal reality and also from the reality of each other. Before the question of what is real becomes explicit in Vacancy, the reader finds himself asking it because of Rowling’s masterfully used narrative structure: characters are first introduced as objects of each other’s perception and experience, and then re-introduced as it were from their own perspectives, as subjects, and then often introduced yet again from the perspective of another person. The views we get of each character are so different that we wonder, “Who is real character here?”
And then the characters puzzle over it: Tessa imagines screaming at the teenagers she counsels, “You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.” (p.88) But Andrew is one of these teenagers, and he has the same question: “Lately, Andrew had asked himself whether Simon [his father] even saw other humans as real.” (p.139) Fats we know is obsessed with the words “Authentic and inauthentic…. they had laser-precise meaning for him, in the way he applied them to himself and others.” (p.74) And there are many more examples of characters lying to others or to themselves… for example, Tessa thinks “what rubbish we tell children” (p.124); Parminder pretends she has friends outside of Pagford (p. 127); and Kay pretends to have an exchange on the phone with Gavin, for the benefit of her listening co-workers (p.83).
You drew attention to the importance of names in Harry Potter; in Vacancy, it seems to me, nicknames are powerful. Suhkvinder is trivialized and not seen by being called “Jolly,” but she is empowered by being called “Sooks.” That Howard calls Parminder “Bend-your-ear” shows his patronizing dislike of her; that Tessa calls her “Minda” shows her affection. Andrew hates his nickname “Peanut” (as important as his allergy is for the plot, and for the final validation of Krystal’s specialness and potential when we learn, at the end of the story, that only she of all the six year olds saved his life), and it is a show of “Fats’” power that the name is mostly done away with.
And, of course, another similarity is the absence of many fathers and the dreadfulness of many of those who are present.
And there are other non-Harry-related subjects… Addiction is an obvious one, and the book seems to suggest that its roots are in abandonment. I am sure I am not the first to have put “Comin’ down with the Dow Jones” into a search engine to see what the rest of the lyrics are. And as opposed to the horrifying beginning of Part Five which starts “Terri Weedon was used to people leaving her,” and then continues with the list of her mother, the social and care workers, and her first, “two children. Tiny little pink things, pure and beautiful like nothing in the whole world… and for shining hours in the hospital, twice, it had been like her own rebirth. And then they took the children from her, and she never saw them again, either.” (p.405) As opposed to this, the song that Krystal loves has the lyrics, “Told you I’ll be here forever / Said I’ll always be a friend / Took an oath, Ima stick it out the end…”
And so is religion. In addition to the many subtle ways Pagford is represented as “post-Christian,” as Neff says in the review that you link to, the characters too speak about the substitute gods that they experience. These are not limited to addiction as a false form of transcendence [in addition to Terri, there is Howard’s eating, Samantha’s (and the other Mollison’s) drinking, Sukhvinder’s self-mutilation], but also to the character’s perceptions of each other: Samantha says Vikram “looks like a god compared to other Pagford men,” (p.158); Andrew thinks “of his father as a pagan god, and of his mother as the high priestess of the cult, who attempted to interpret and intercede, usually failing, yet still insisting, in the face of all the evidence, that there was an underlying magnanimity and reasonableness to her deity” (p. 171), and later he refers to her “unshakable allegiance to her false idol” (p.289).