The Casual Vacancy is a masterclass in how to plot a novel. There are lots of interesting and connected characters, most of whom live in a picture-postcard English village called Pagford, and lots of interesting and connected things happen to them. The characters are linked through the Pagford Parish Council, the local secondary school or the medical centre. Like a camera on a magical flying dolly, Rowling focuses in on one individual, pulls out to look at their family and friends and then zooms up out of the house or school or hall, off to find someone else to catch up on their story, their family and friends. It’s old school, like Charles Dickens or George Eliot, a brick of a novel teeming with life, a real universe to lose yourself in.
The novel starts with the surprise death by aneurysm of the merry, compassionate Councillor Barry Fairweather. A small man with a neat beard he dies on his wedding anniversary outside the golf club where he was going to dine with his wife Mary. The ‘casual vacancy’ his death creates on the Parish Council opens up a Pandora’s box of greed, lust, envy , racism, snobbery and political shenanigans of every stripe. Pagford clearly has a dark underbelly and this darkness is going to be explored through every possible angle as we follow one character after another who is intent on promoting their own family, or their own interests, above everyone else’s. Continue reading
A small preliminary rave about Helen Simpson. She’s an English short story writer with a low output (one slim volume every five years) who writes smart, funny, sometimes bitter, sometimes life-affirming short stories about normal people living normal lives. Her preoccupations are intimate, domestic, personal: motherhood, housework, relationships, friendships, work, work/family balance – but her themes are universal and political. Apparently Helen Simpson invented mummy-lit, but if that is so, then it’s only in the same way that Jane Austen invented chick-lit.
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life opens with Lentils and Lilies in which we meet Jade Beaumont, a teenager home from school on a study day, upstairs in her bedroom thinking about her summer tan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (but mainly her summer tan). She’s gazing out her bedroom window upon the street below. In every fibre of her being she’s aware of her growing power: “every day when she left the house, there was the excitement of being noticed, the warmth of eyebeams…she was the focus of every film she saw, every novel she read…” Jade knows what end is up; she fingers her certainties like beads in her pocket. Here she is walking down the boring suburban road in front of her house:
She was never going to go dead inside or live somewhere boring like this and she would make sure she was in charge at any work she did and not let it run her. She would never be like her mother…with her tense talk of juggling and her self-importance about her precious job and her joyless ‘running the family’.
This is a little black dress of a crime novel: elegant, clean, smart.
Di Porteous is the twenty-six year old widow of a much older art collector. She lives in his beautiful old house by the sea and roams around the beach, listless and sad. She had really loved Thomas, her almost seventy year old husband. He had, in a Pygmalion sort of way, rescued her from a life of crime and taught her everything he knew about art.
Di’s friends are worried that all she does is mope on the beach, missing Thomas and obsessing about some human bones in the basement. (The bone thing is kind of weird – but it’s neatly sewn in to the plot.) Saul, dapper friend and art agent, arranges for Di to meet his sister Sarah in the hope that Sarah’s eccentric vitality will perk Di up. He’s right, it does. Sarah introduces Di to the joys of shopping for clothes and to a mad old grumpy lady whose son has stolen her paintings. Sarah and Di decide to steal the paintings back. Continue reading
Harold Fry is an ordinary retired gent. A man of simple habits and mild interests. He sets off on foot one morning to post a letter he has written to an old friend, Queenie, who has cancer. Except, he doesn’t stop at the post box, he keeps on walking. An idea has entered his head: he’ll keep on walking for 500 miles, all the way up the country, until he reaches Queenie. He will walk to keep her alive.
He walks up the country in the yachting shoes he was wearing that first morning, getting them resoled when necessary. He has none of the right gear but is given bits and pieces by strangers; a compass, a rucksack. After the first few days he posts his credit card back to his wife Maureen; he will rely totally on what he finds or is given ‑ or do without. He grows a beard. He meets lots of people. A dog (‘Dog’) attaches itself to him. His journey briefly becomes front page news and he gets followers. Dog leaves him. He leaves the followers, sneaking away from their camp one early morning. Continue reading