Always one for being behind the times, it has taken me nine months to pick up J.K. Rowling’s latest novel, The Casual Vacancy. This book may have divided the opinions of the overlord of culture that is The Guardian, but this reader has only admiration for this truly remarkable novel by a truly remarkable writer. Needless to say I love J.K. Rowling! By this I’m not saying I love Harry Potter, I’m saying I love J.K. Rowling. As fascinating as her tales of witchcraft and wizardry are, it is the woman behind the books that has kept me fascinated for all these years.
Born Joanne Rowling on July 31st 1965 to a middle-class family in Bristol, Jo Rowling began writing at a very early age, penning stories about rabbits for her sister at the age of six. Her desire to write carried her all the way through to her twenties never finding the right subject to keep her inspired. However, on a train from Manchester after a disastrous attempt at flat hunting, she suddenly got an idea that would make her a household name all over the world.
Her idea was simple: a boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes off to wizard school. Without a pen on her person she concocted stories about this strange person inside her head as she continued home where for six months solid she wrote about this boy. She named him Harry Potter but the world would not meet him for five more years. As she wrote her magical tale, the life of Jo would take dramatic and devastating turns, all of which would develop a story that captured the world’s heart.
In 1990, several months after the inspiration for Harry Potter magically appeared into the mind of Joanne, her mother passed away after a ten year battle with multiple sclerosis. She never had the chance to meet Harry. Rowling later admitted that, although the plot remained the same, everything “deepened and darkened” after the death of her mother and through her grief, she was able to connect more with her central character, having suffered the same pain as he had. He provided her with a hand through her grief, often saying things that she herself needed to hear. The Guardian sparked the events that twenty-years later would inspire her to write The Casual Vacancy, when she saw an advert for teaching English in Portugal. Once there she taught and wrote, found love with Jorge Arantes and had her first daughter, Jessica. However, just more than a year into their destructive and abusive marriage, the couple separated and Jo moved to Scotland with her daughter to begin a new life.
After a failed marriage and becoming a single mother, Jo described herself as “the biggest failure I knew” and found herself living soley on benefits. Many times she has confessed to being as poor as one could be without being homeless and thus, she began suffering from depression. Through this dark haze, the idea of the Dementors began to surface, vile creatures that live on the happiness extracted from those they come across. However, it was from this low dark place, the idea that she was a failure and the realization that she was at rock bottom that made Jo reach for her pen once more and bring Harry’s world into the light. Her motto of, “The worst thing that could happen is that it gets rejected by every publishing house in Britain, so what?” gave her the courage to write what she wanted without any expectations or notions of failure.
Cut to fifteen years later, seven best-selling books, eight million-dollar-generating movies and four hundred and fifty million in sales figures, J.K. Rowling: the woman who had nothing was one of the richest and most celebrated women in the world. She inspired a generation of children, teens and adults to put down the TV remote and pick up a book and has used her vast wealth to create various successful charities that help those in impoverished conditions.
Rowling has never forgotten what it was like to be poor. Her financial status has branched from the soil to the sky and as such knows the perils of having and not having money. Whilst on a plane to the United States, inspiration struck her once more and she began her first novel away from the Harry Potter series under the working title, Responsible. It was a tale of a small idyllic town that harboured dark and potentially life-destroying secrets. Behind the white picket fences and expensive drapes was a town divided by the death of their local parish leader. The story would later be The Casual Vacancy, an adult tragic comedy about the town of Pagford and the local council election that would create devastation of several, if not all, of the locals.
However, across the way are “The Fields” an estate where the local “criminals” live in squalor where their days consist of shooting up, stealing and shagging one another. Or so the locals of Pagford believe anyway. In the heart of the estate in Bellchapel Addiction Centre where many of the Fields residents attend in order to combat their various addictions. However, the lease is almost up and the local Pagford Parish want it, and the people who attend it, out. The Casual Vacancy follows many different characters from many different walks of life but all united by their views on one character: Krystal Weedon. She is what one Daily Mail advocate might describe as, a typical chav what with her apprehensive nature, her addiction to swearing and the fact that there aren’t many bushes in the local village that hasn’t had sex in. However, her poverty is only a small shard of what builds this character up and as the local election rages on, the hardships of Krystal and her brother, Robbie, thunder on also.
Much like with Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy is a story of morality and tackles the hard questions that are asked in this time of British hardship. In a town littered with hypocrisy from those who have the money to have an opinion, Rowling asks her readers to search for the true “criminals” and low lives. Sure, many of the indiscretions and acts of immorality committed by the Fields locals are exposed, but does that mean that the Pagfordians don’t have addictions and secrets of there own. Just because they are buried under money, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Having known herself as poor, and therefore the “other”, a whisper in the corner of mouths, a thought one has in a nighttime, Rowling talks an almost Dickens approach to her writing in highlighting the tragic lives of those who could live a mere several feet from our own doorsteps, with only a road separating the rich from the poor. Rowling has known true hardship and this reflects in her works, it has affected every decision she has made in her life and although now she lives a fabulous life in Scotland with her husband and three children, she has never forgotten the feeling of being rock bottom.
Whether it be boy wizards fighting dark lords or middle class mothers fighting feeling for other men, at the base of her writing is honesty and that’s why I bloody love J.K. Rowling!