The Casual Vacancy is the new adult novel by famed Harry Potter author, J.K Rowling. This novel is a departure from her previous work in every way except for one and that is the subject of death. This is worth reading, it is a book for these times.
The book starts of with the death of a council member in a small English town and what unravels is a dark and twisted version of It’s A Wonderful Life; if that film had been written by Ian McEwan. This is the dark mirror of Harry’s world. There is no real good or evil; it is all selfishness and egocentricity. Barry’s death has left a black hole in this community.
They’re completely deluded, Tessa thought, looking that the other three, who were poring over some graph that Parminder had extracted from Kay’s notes. They think they’ll reverse sixty years of anger and resentment with a few sheets of statistics. None of them was Barry. He had been the living example of what they proposed in theory: the advancement, through education, from poverty to affluence, from powerlessness and dependency to valuable contributor to society. Did they not see what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died? (From The Casual Vacancy)
Rowling weaves a story of a town as interconnected as any Austen novel but with considerably more morose secrets below the surface of every character. There is a complete disconnectedness that each of the characters has for one another. They see the person not as real human being but as something to be consumed; they see only what they can get out of someone. People use people like a commodity to be manipulated for personal gain and then discarded when they are no longer needed. The bleak landscape of humanity on display is a testament to Rowling’s keen eye for the plight of 21st century, 1st world people; a world of epic Darwinian proportions. Gone are the days when people were seen as special and to be honored. The human race has been reduced to the state of a mere intelligent animal. And as such, we treat each other with the same disdain that the animal kingdom has for it’s members. We are driven by the instinct to look out for no one but ourselves and as such, society has begun to crumble under the immense weight of debilitating self-interest.
Inside this world, Rowling navigates the issues of class, gender and race. She may be accused of being heavy-handed in this, but whenever an author presses on the pressure points of society in the way she does, it is going to cause supreme discomfort in the reader. Humans dislike being told they are wrong and literature has always been at the forefront of fighting social injustice; To Kill a Mockingbird is a prime example of this. The challenge laid down in this book is how to overcome the problems set forth. The short answer; look not to ourselves but to the whole. The end of the book makes plainly clear it takes a community to foster true life. It takes each person putting the needs of others above themselves and having compassion. It is only in taking responsibility for the care of each other and seeing one anther with the value that is inherent in every person that society can flourish. This brings to mind a thought from one of The United States’ founding documents,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
Social justice is a subject that is immensely important and how we view each other is at the heart of this. Rowling has pointed out our weaknesses and truthfully there is only one answer that will fully satisfy. If we are created by a personal God and made in his image and not just random chance, then there is a duty we each have to honor and value each other. Tim Keller puts it this way,
….”So God created man in his own image.” What does being an “image” mean? It conveys the idea of being a work of art or of great craftsmanship. Human beings are not accident, but creations.Without a belief in creation, we are force to face the implication that ultimately there is no good reason to treat human beings as having dignity….The Bible teaches that the sacredness of God has in some ways been imparted to humanity, so that every human life is sacred and every human being has dignity. When God put his image upon us, we became beings of infinite, inestimable value….Regardless of their record or character, all human beings have an irreducible glory and significance to them, because God loves them, indeed, he “loves all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9, 17). He loves even those who turn away from him (Ezekiel 33:11; John 3:16). This bestows worth on them. (From Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just)