The Casual Vacancy

 

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s rather brilliant introductory immersion into the world of adult fiction. There is no magic, nor any hint of feathers and light. It’s as dark as the day is long, and it’s absolutely dazzling. I was skeptical when I heard my literary hero had decided to write for an adult audience, but she’s really nailed it. The book had me in tears after a few pages, because it’s powerful stuff. Suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide adorn it’s pages. This is not a story for children. The tale has recently been adapted for television too, and it’s fantastic. It’s a must see, and let me tell you why.

The story is set in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford – think the Costwolds in rural splendour, and you’re there. It chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother. We are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, varying from hideous and hypocritical snobbery in the form of Howard Mollison, the parish council leader, and Krystal Wheedon, the spunky daughter of a heroin addict, who is single-handedly bringing up her toddler brother and caring for her mother. Howard Mollison strives to bring Pagford to tourist status, and therefore wishes to wipe away the housing estate that surrounds the picturesque village. Other members of the council wish to create a rehabilitation centre for the less fortunate.

This clear societal division lays the groundwork for an in-depth exploration of many underlying issues in present day society. The main conflict is between those who believe in rural preservation and those who have a duty of care towards the less fortunate, and it’s gripping stuff. In last night’s episode, we see a battle of wits between both parties. Howard Mollison discusses the lower echelons of society. He states that they choose to ‘put needles in their veins,’ and that they should effectively be wiped off the map. He claims that they need to take responsibility for their life decisions. The hot-headed village GP argues that he is a hypocrite. His ever-increasing weight is a burden on the NHS. She states that his medication costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, because he has made a lifestyle choice to remain horrendously overweight. Howard Mollison is less than pleased, and takes it as an insult. His pompous ignorance and arrogance is exposed, and the audience are forced to re-think their sociological ideals. Are we all making life decisions that directly contradict our own value systems and beliefs?

This drama is superbly acted, and in episode 2, Howard Mollison has a harrowing dream about what ‘the casual vacancy’ truly is. It’s the grave that waits for all of us. It’s a powerful adaptation, and questions what our legacies will be. The Casual Vacancy deals very vividly with social conscience, and I think it’s superb. If you aren’t watching, then you really ought to.

Confessions

‘Men make mess,’ my Great Grandma used to say. ‘They come to you when everything is tidy. They mess everything up, and then they leave again.’

They were strong words to say to an eleven year old girl, and finally, thirteen years later, I think I understand what she meant. The ‘mess’ she was referring to was not the domestic image of unwashed dishes that I had previously assumed. She meant an emotional mess, and being in the shadow of your former ‘tidy’ self. She was referring to the great and sometimes painful process of falling in love, and what happens when it’s over.

My Great Grandma had always been a strong woman. She drove a tank during World War II, and did supply runs in armoured trucks over live minefields. She met my great grandfather during a raid, and she took great delight in telling us how he talked far too much. He was a skinny fellow, she said, who wore shabby shoes, and he was lucky he didn’t get his toes blown off. She said it was love at first sight, and when my Grandma fell pregnant, she came home to England and began building a home for her new family. She chose a quiet little village in Surrey, where the most exciting occurrence was Sunday Mass. It was a million miles away from war. It was perfect.

Sadly, my Grandma never saw her lover again. She explained to everyone that he had died in action, and that his body had never been recovered. When we asked her how, her eyes would gloss over and grow distant. She didn’t want to talk about it, and no-one pressured my Grandma into doing anything. This woman was a soldier.

It always made me sad to think of her, alone with a child. She was a resilient woman, who prided herself on being able to handle anything life threw at her. Rather than cry in front of people, and feel sorry for herself, she got on with life. She juggled three jobs at once. She was a nurse during the day, a barmaid during the night and a milkman in the middle of the night. People who knew her said she hardly slept at all. She didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. She moved on, and gave my Grandad the best childhood imaginable.

When my Grandad was twenty-five years old, he died in a car accident. I remember sitting with my Great Grandma at the time, eating stew and watching her do the crossword. She didn’t react to the phone-call. She put the receiver down and shuffled back into the kitchen, putting all the plates away and starting the washing up. No-one really understood what was going on, and although everyone offered her support, she merely shrugged it off. At the funeral, she sat in the front row in silence, fingering the embroidered daisies on her dress. She cried one single tear, and it dribbled down her wrinkled skin silently. She spoke to no-one.

To say that my Grandma suffered a great loss is an understatement. She lost the man she loved and she outlived her son. I would spend most weekends with her, and she taught me everything she knew. We’d plant potatoes together, knit little blankets and do the crosswords. She told me to work hard in life, and always be mindful of other people. She said I had to go to school, because school would give me a life. She was the smartest person in the world, and I did everything she said. There were times when I grew bored and restless, but then I remembered her wise words and carried on.

My Grandma passed away last year, and she made a shocking confession on her deathbed. My Great Grandad hadn’t died in the war. He had already been married, but had failed to mention it until after she fell pregnant. He returned home to his wife and three children, and my Grandma never saw him again. Most people would have crumbled, but she coped. She accepted that she would never have her lover in her life, and so she focused on bringing up my Grandad alone. Maybe my Grandad should have been given the chance to find his father? When my Mum asked her this, my Grandma simply smiled and said, ‘It would have made a terrible mess.’

Unfinished Business

Writing and I have a turbulent relationship. When things are going well, it’s the best love affair I’ve ever had. I wake up breathless and excited every day, and cannot wait to see my work again. I drink copious amounts of coffee as I delve into it, and the feeling of enthusiasm never fades. It’s like a damn drug, and I stay up all hours, contemplating our next meeting. It’s blissful. Manic, but blissful.

It isn’t always so. When things are bad, I tend to fall into a black hole of depression, and view my work as though it were a treacherous ex boyfriend. Why did it stop talking to me? Why did our love affair end, and on what terms? I can’t figure out what went wrong. Maybe we had a different endgame in mind? I wanted to finish in a well-rounded and credible place, but my muse had different ideas. It refuses to offer any more inspiration or guidance. It’s cruel, and I start to question my own abilities at restoring the relationship, or ever creating anything again. Maybe I don’t have what it takes?

I’m sure I’m not the only person to have suffered this, and it’s a bitter experience. Nobody likes unfinished business, and an unfinished book is just that. It started well. I spent a year researching my subject matter, and created a plot plan which seemed flawless. ‘Seemed’ being the important word here. The plot wasn’t flawless, and I often found myself at points where I wondered where to go next. My characters took strange turns which were both fascinating and frustrating. I followed these turns in the name of narrative flow, and I was genuinely excited at the time, but then I found myself ill-prepared when new turns reared their heads. To put it bluntly, my characters approached complex situations, and then they stopped talking to me. I didn’t know where to go next. I went from being unable to function without being inspired to write, to…nothing.

The love affair seemed to be over, and I made the mistake of stepping away from my work. I turned off the laptop, and returned the next morning, expecting to find my muse. I didn’t. I sat and stared at the same amount of words, over and over again. My muse didn’t return to me immediately, and so I gave up. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I walked away and stopped. I’d invested years into this, but it only took two days for me to give up. Needless to say, I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s the truth.

The New Year has come back around, and I’m thinking about the unfinished book again. I’m thinking about my inability to focus on something long term, and how I can fix it. During university, I didn’t have a choice but to remain focused on dissertations and assignments. Fixed university deadlines terrified me into focus, and I powered through the moments of self-doubt, and discovered inspiration again on the way. My New Years Eve resolution is therefore to make a plan, set myself deadlines and stick to them. I’m going to be turning off the internet when writing, and staying the hell away from social media. Facebook is an absolute curse to my writing. My self-control is weak, but things need to change!

And they will. Once I’ve checked Facebook one more time…only kidding!

Wish me luck!