I just finished J. K. Rowling’s latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, yesterday. It was very different from Harry Potter, but that was a lot of the point. Here I begin to unravel some of my thoughts on the subject of the book, which I hope to expand in further posts.
**** SPOILER ALERT – DO NOT CONTINUE UNLESS YOU’VE FINISHED THE BOOK, OR UNLESS YOU WANT TO BE SPOILED. BECAUSE YOU WILL BE. IRREPARABLY. ****
The first thing I want us to think a little bit about is the protagonist. Who is the protagonist of the book? A protagonist is the lead character, the primary character through whom we process the story, see the events, and (centrally) identify with. They are generally necessary to lead the reader through the story as guide and companion, almost a reader stand-in that mediates the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the story-world to the readers.
The first thing we notice is that there is no real character that fits this description. Who do we identify with? There seems to be no single character we can point to which is likeable enough for us to stand with them. They are all compromised by various hypocritical failings, most of them entirely unlikable in any real respect, and while we come to understand them and the motivations for who they are and why they behave the way they do, none really rises above the others. I think Andrew comes closest to being a character we can identify with, an ordinary boy star-struck crushing on a girl out of his league and struggling to find himself amid a cacophany of nonsense, abuse, and buzzin’, bloomin’ confusion.
But the story is not Andrew’s, as much sympathy we might have for him. Now, Rowling has intimated in interviews that the story is really about Krystal Weedon. After all, the book opens with Barry working on an article on her in the paper, and it ends with her death, and the whole in-between is primarily concerned with the question, “What are we going to do with Krystal Weedon.” By the mid-way point of the novel, the Weedon home, most particularly focused on Krystal, become the face of the Fields. She represents the Fields to Pagford, its desperate attempts to stay clean and better itself, and its endless regression of setbacks based in human tragedy and moral choices that lead to disasterous consequences.
I confess this was an angle that did not fully make itself clear to me on the first reading, but I like it, and there is much to commend it.
Save one thing. We don’t really identify with Krystal. We might have great sympathy and pathos for her character and life (I know I did), but the sympathy of her is not the same as our sympathy for little Harry. Unlike Harry, who is ordinary and normal and the one whom the reader immediately identifies with, Krystal is still just one girl among a large cast. It’s no more Krystal’s story than anyone else’s.
In fact, the thing that struck me most about The Casual Vacancy is that it seems to have no main character. It is a book with a hole in its center. I believe that is the point entirely. The protagonist is Barry Fairbrother. It was he that held Pagford together, that bound Pagford to the Fields. He alone was able to mediate between all the various factions at play, to temper the high-strung and petty, squabbling voices, to draw the best out of everyone around him. With him gone, anarchy and hatred descend again in a swift run across the gloomy marches of Pagford’s social fabric.
And, of course, it was he that saw the good in Krystal Weedon, him that encouraged her, pushed her beyond her environment to be better than she was, and in so doing, set in motion the story we have before us. His belief in Krystal made her the face of the Fields, so that her death would galvanize the towns, summon support for the tragedy of what is the Fields, and gives the Bellchapel Clinic its best shot of staying open. The death of her and Robbie healed the wounds, reconciled enemies, and put to death the long winter of seething social unrest. Not perfectly. Not entirely. But enough for a chance at a new beginning.
That, I think, is what is so beautiful and haunting about this strange book, the thing that sticks with you for days afterward. As Rowling herself has said, and through Dumbledore repeatedly, love is the greatest magic that exists. The ability to choose to love the unlovable, the other, the ugly, the undeserving, is what lifts us to the greatest heights of what it means to be human. The power of Krystal’s narrative is that even tragedy, in this case, is swept into the larger story of good. The story of Barry’s narrative is that no act of kindness, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, will fall lifelessly to the ground without first bearing fruit.