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There’s something uncomfortable about J. K. Rowling’s first for-adults novel, Causal Vacancy.  Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to say that when I finished, I was reminded of a fridge magnet I should have bought but didn’t.  I’m not much into kitschy magnets, but I regret not buying one that said “The only normal people you know are those you don’t know very well.”

Her readers get to know the nine interconnected households Rowling describes perhaps too well. The novel is steeped in psychological realism.  We completely understand each character’s thoughts and actions, but it’s hard to have sympathy for them.  That is until the plot tightens to an unbearable breaking point where the reader sees their (aesthetic) distance mirrored in many of the major characters who encounter a damaged soul without feeling any responsibility for his situation.  This motif has built through the course of the novel, and, very tellingly, none of the teenagers ever turn to an adult to help them with very serious problems: complete upheavals, alienation, verbal and physical abuse, constant parental recriminations, cutting, rape….

The time covered by the novel is brief – despite the range of characters, there’s barely any back story given and not much of a glimpse of the future in the final pages.  What we get is a claustrophobic, imploding conflict set in the narrow time and space of the now in the small village of Pagford.

Rowling of course is aware that there is much scrutiny on her latest work.  “I would love it to be a normal book,” she’s said.  She even contemplated publishing under a pseudonym but decided against it, perhaps in part because she believes that her novel is about responsibility: “In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”

Rowling compares this novel to intricate, plot-oriented 19th-century novels such as those by Trollope or Dickens.  In both instances, we find parochial novels of social commentary and satire, novels not afraid to embrace sentimentalism (her ending is akin to that of the death of Nell in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop), but Victorian readers were not shy of feeling grief at the death of a character, even if we stereotypically view Victorians as suppressed.

Nowadays, words used to label sentimental stories – tear jerker, sob story, bleeding heart – are tinged with negativity.  A quick look at the dictionary shows that the term is about excess and the need to control such excess (“undue;” “inconsolable;” “cloying;” “mushiness;” “maudlin;” “mawkish”).  But for what do we engage in listening to, reading, creating, sharing stories, our stories and those of others, if not, in part, to feel something?  “I would have nothing to say to the person who didn’t cry at the end of this book… nothing,” Rowling commented to a Canadian radio-show host.

Not everyone has been sympathetic to her new venture; the English Daily Mail called it a “socialist manifesto masquerading as literature.”  Perhaps the writer’s right.  After all, Rowling has said, “I would be, as my children well know, extremely disappointed, and I would feel that I had failed if I turned out individuals who felt their contribution to society should be simply to consume.”  Definitely the book works along the division of class with many in Pagford resentful that their resources are being spent on The Fields, a place where drug dealers and addicts, welfare mums, and also those struggling to rise up above such circumstances live.  Rowling stands completely against those who believe everyone should and can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps because, as we all know her personal story, she herself received help from the government as a single-mother while she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and, as the richest woman in Britain, Rowling has never shirked her responsibility to pay the taxes owed.

My only annoyance was with the character that Rowling enjoyed writing the most – Fats Walls.  The teenage son of the high-school principal and the school’s counselor, he has in many respects the most supportive parents and normal home life (although that too is complicated).  Yet he rebels to become what he terms more “authentic” through a desire to engage with violence and poverty, and his pseudo-Nietzschean desire to “slum it” with people from The Fields is repulsive – and one that soon ends when he gets to escape to his home in Pagford when tragedy occurs, something Fields residents cannot do.

Casual Vacancy reminds me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne’s main character takes a night journey deep into the woods near his village where he comes across a black mass attended by every person in his village.  Young Goodman Brown feels himself exempt from the sinful events he encounters, despite his conscious decision to journey into the woods, believing himself to be pure and guiltless. “No,” I said to myself, “I don’t identify with any of these characters.” Could I be as wrong as Goodman Brown?  Was I avoiding some kind of responsibility?

Rowling’s book perhaps is a little too uncomfortable and unsettling because we all have our vices that we keep hidden purposefully out of sight; Rowling’s characters have all of their wretchedness and pettiness exposed.  And that’s hard to read about – and recognize within.

– Eleni Anastasiou, 17th November 2012