The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling

1 November 2013
Sunday to Wednesday
The title is a misnomer. There aren’t any vacancies in this book, casual or otherwise, because J K Rowling never leaves a single thing out. It’s as though modernism has never happened, so she can be the omniscient Victorian narrator, writing prose as overcrowded as any Victorian interior. Even the project has the whiff of the 19th Century about it: in the microcosm of society she has created in Pagford and its overbearing neighbour Yarvil, Rowling seems to be writing a State of England novel for our times. As she has her readers rub shoulders with everyone from the owners of the local stately home to the single mother who sells her body to pay for her next heroin fix, Rowling’s scope is as wide as that of Dickens or George Eliot. It would be a fine ambition to write the new Middlemarch….

If only. At the point I’ve reached, a quarter of the way through the novel, Rowling’s presentation of a little England seems to be no more than sleight of hand. She isn’t giving us the big sweep, but mise-en-scene, a carefully constructed series of settings. Up-market grocer and deli in a gentrified little town? Check. Poorly-run comprehensive school with discipline problems? Check. Jerry-built social housing gone to the dogs? Check. Through the adjective-laden descriptive prose that Rowling goes in for, we are shown every nook and cranny of these places – and of the thought-processes of the people involved in the encounters there. These techniques make it all feel kind of realistic, as though we might be getting genuine insights into the way we live now: marriages are like this, parent-child relationships are like this, life on the scrap-heap is like this…..

Nah. For this to work, we’d need to believe that Rowling knows what she’s talking about. But as she picks over the fragments of a ‘broken society’ – not her phrase, but an idea that has a lazy currency in this part of the 21st Century – I find it hard to detect any new insights at all. Once she casts her net beyond the lives of the lower middle classes, the milieux she describes seem to be based on popular preconceptions. Everybody knows what run-down estates are like, what the filthy interiors of the houses of people who can’t cope are like – we’ve seen the endless Channel 4 programmes about them – and everybody definitely knows about second-rate comprehensive schools. Except Rowling doesn’t know, for instance, that there have been no ‘first years’ in English state schools since the early 1990s, but Year 7s; and that there has been no ‘woodwork’ or ‘computing’ for at least as long. Every parent in England knows this, so why doesn’t she? How can she have set foot in a single school without realising that she is using terminology from the 1980s?

It makes me wonder what else Rowling has got wrong, not only to do with terminology but with procedures. Can schools really afford to be run like this, with for instance, someone employed solely to provide counselling for the difficult kids? And would a real social worker recognise the practices Rowling presents? Sure, we all know that it’s an overworked profession and, as in teaching, that there’s a lot of sickness leave brought on by stress…. But that only brings us back to the convenient half-truths of what everybody thinks they know. Rowling is a good enough writer to offer a plausible-seeming gloss, but it only feels right if you don’t ask too many questions of it.

There’s the same problem with the psychology in the novel: Rowling tends to give her characters the personalities you would expect, and has them behave in ways that seem set down like railway lines. A big theme is nimbyism, that least attractive of small-town attributes, and she has more or less personified it in Howard Mollison, grocer and deli owner. His wife isn’t identical to him, demonstrating different but equally unsavoury attributes mainly to do with her bitchiness and complacency… and don’t get me started on Rowling’s presentation of 15- and 16-year-olds. Think of a cliché, something everybody knows about, and you’ll almost certainly find it here. It’s characterisation by numbers, and none of it feels authentic.

I should tell you what’s been going on. Each section is a day of the week, starting with Sunday. In the first two or three pages a character is introduced to us only to die almost immediately. Monday to Wednesday: we meet various characters by way of the ripples this event causes in their lives. Among other things, the thoughts revealed to us by our omniscient narrator allow us frequent glimpses of truths about these people which, for all sorts of reasons, they keep hidden. Often these are deeply uncharitable feelings or opinions they have concerning other characters; the town is full of the petty jealousies and resentments you would expect from an author who is happy to confirm all our prejudices about such a place. There’s sometimes a secret corner where they keep the thoughts they can’t speak out loud: plans to escape from a relationship in which the other person has become too clingy; the contempt a son feels for his bullying father.

The dead man is Barry Fairbrother – now there’s a surname straight from Victorian fiction – who had been a left-leaning councillor originally from the despised ‘Fields’ housing estate that is almost a character in itself in the novel. He appears to have been such a pillar of the local community that all the less hateful characters appear to be badly affected by his death. Aside from his wife and children, whom Rowling has left on the sidelines so far, there’s Parminder Jawanda, the Indian GP who seems to have been Fairbrother’s closest ally on the council. (She is married to a Bollywood-handsome heart surgeon, who saved the unworthy life of Howard Mollison, Fairbrother’s chief opponent on the council, seven years ago.) There are hints, which might be no more than mean-minded small-town gossip, that Parminder’s closeness to Fairbrother went beyond mere political allegiance. We’ll see.

Others badly affected are the Walls. There’s Colin ‘Cubby’ Wall, an earnest but ineffectual deputy headteacher at the secondary school – his nickname is from one of those verbal tics that people like him are supposed to get into – and his wife Tessa, the motherly school counsellor there. Cubby, who feels he has lost his only friend, thinks he ought to stand for the vacant council seat in order to try to carry on Fairbrother’s good work of holding the line against Mollison. Given Cubby’s inveterate sense of insecurity and self-doubt this idea seems doomed. Meanwhile Tessa will sorely miss Fairbrother’s voluntary input into the school: he organised a particularly unlikely sporting activity with the older girls, and I’ll come back to that. Tessa seems to have been born yesterday, having left her watch in plain sight of a girl she doesn’t seem to realise will steal anything that isn’t bolted down. But that’s what even the sympathetic adults are like in Rowling-land: there’s often something about them that allows the reader to feel smugly superior.

The girl is Krystal Weedon, and she’s another archetype. Rough diamond? Whore with a heart of gold? Something like that. When she isn’t nicking stuff and getting into fights, she’s saving her mother from herself in the council house on the Fields estate, and doing her best to get some kind of life for her three-year-old brother. She often comes home to find him in nappies, not having attended his nursery. Only she can look after him when her mother is incapable – which is almost always – and when the grandmother is indisposed. Following Barry Fairbrother’s death she knows she’ll be lost without the school rowing team he’d organised and managed. (Yes, I did say rowing team.) Other more or less sympathetic characters – I’ll just mention the adults for now – are Kay and Ruth. Kay is the social worker who has taken temporary charge of the Weedons’ case while a colleague is on sick-leave through stress, and Ruth is the nurse who lives locally and works at the hospital Fairbrother was taken to. I’ll come back to them.

Ranged against these are the unspeakable shits. There’s Howard Mollison, of course, whose morbid obesity seems to symbolise his smug self-centredness. He has to hide his delight when hears of the death, because he thinks it will now be easier to push forward his idea of relinquishing any responsibility for the Fields estate. There’s Mollison’s self-serving and inveterately bitchy wife Shirley and his son Miles. He is husband of Samantha, she of a lifetime of sunbeds and proprietor of a shop selling oversize bras in Yarvil. Howard has Miles lined up for the vacant seat on the council…. There’s Gavin, Miles’s partner in the solicitors’ practice and Fairbrother’s former squash partner. He isn’t interested in anybody or anything, and is the one constantly calculating how to extricate himself from his relationship with Kay, the social worker who has moved from London just to be near him. There’s Simon Price, the bullying husband and father who thinks that standing for the council might widen his sphere of influence and control beyond the merely domestic. (He is king of the hill at home, or ‘Hilltop House’, but is practically unknown outside. He’s too arrogant to make friends.) Ruth is his literally long-suffering wife: he isn’t above physical as well as constant verbal abuse of everyone in the family.

And as if the bourgeoisie aren’t tiresome enough, there are also their children. We’re often inside the testosterone-fuelled consciousness of Andrew Price, son of Simon, who can see right through his father’s bullying behaviour and his mother’s self-deceiving belief that she can change him for the better. He’s too scared to say anything, but Rowling frequently presents us with the lines, in italics, that he would speak if he dared. (It’s a frequent trope of hers.) Andrew is the only friend, if you can call him that, of Cubby and Tessa’s skinny son Fats. He’s another bully, constantly letting Parminder’s underachieving daughter Sukhvinder know how unattractive she is. In his clever, cynical way he is as disruptive as Krystal – speaking of whom, Fats has almost reached the culmination of his campaign to have sex with her. Andrew, on the other hand, can only dream of even saying hello to the new girl, Gaia. She is Kay’s fabulous-looking daughter, with the added gloss of London sophistication.

Enough for now? I think so.

4 November
Friday…
…which, I only now realise, takes us to the end of Part 1. Friday is the day of the funeral – although, in fact, the first chapter of this section takes place in various venues the night before – and nothing is changing my mind about this novel. We’re given an insight into the utter contempt Gavin feels for the idea of commitment to Kay, the brutality of Fats Wall’s bullying of Sukhvinder… and, as a consequence of the cyber-bullying he goes in for, there’s another of those worrying things we all know about adolescent behaviour: self-harm. (Sigh.)

Why don’t I just tell you what happens? Sukhvinder is slightly overweight and has a little dark downy hair on her upper lip. These features give the unspeakable Fats the opportunity to make clever-cruel comments about her, and send her insulting Facebook images. She has a self-esteem problem, and waits for her over-achieving family to be in bed before she begins to cut herself. Rowling describes this movingly – I never pretended she doesn’t know how to write – and… and what? It’s another box ticked. (There’s a clunking inevitability about the passing reference Rowling makes to the girl’s only friends. They are the well-adjusted Fairbrother twins. Rowling clearly has another agenda, to do with a spectrum of parenting quality: their father was clearly situated at the right end… so Rowling isn’t really interested in them.)

The funeral is a recapitulation of the main themes of Part 1, confirming what we’ve found out about these people. Gavin is jittery and feels second-rate compared to the dead man. Cubby is grief-stricken as he frets about his duties as a pall-bearer: he will never have another friend like Barry. And Howard Mollinson is his usual unspeakable self, using his bulk to keep half a pew available so that he can rub shoulders, literally this time, with the owners of the stately home. The Mollisons’ class snobbery is the core of all the human frailties they represent. (I’m reminded of how, in earlier chapters, we’ve seen that Shirley’s bric-a-brac in the ‘lounge’ – I think Rowling might even sneeringly remark on their use of this word – consists almost entirely of memorabilia relating to the Queen, a detail I can only think is there so that the reader is allowed to feel superior.) Et cetera.

There’s a coda. Andrew manages, against the odds, to catch a sight of Gaia – and a ‘Hi!’ – as he rides his father’s racing bike down her street specifically for the purpose. He goes to the secret hiding place he discovered with Fats some years ago, where he waits for Mr Nasty to arrive with the Rizlas and dope. Fats tells Andrew that, yes, he’s gone the whole way with Krystal. It only lasted ten seconds (snigger), and he wonders how much better it would be without a condom. (Editing note: why aren’t Andrew and Gaia at school on a Friday in term-time? And how come someone’s managed to grow a sunflower in spring?)

9 November
Part 2…
…which, despite being only 80-odd pages, has taken me five days to read…. What’s happening? We find out a little more about the three highly flawed men who have decided to stand for the elections. Cubby Wall spends hours just deciding on the right font for his election leaflet; Miles Mollison is becoming more oleaginously horrible as the novel progresses; and Andrew’s father Simon is nasty in what seems to be about seven or eight different ways. This novel is about character, not politics, so which parties they might represent isn’t an issue. It would be hard to care anyway.

Rowling is beginning to resort to plot, which might not be a bad thing when the characters are so unattractive. The main thing connected to the election is Andrew’s decision to screw his father’s chances by hacking into the parish council’s poorly firewalled website. At the point I’ve reached he’s just left a message as ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ hinting at his father’s small-time dishonesty. Fats, who only learns of this when he sees what Andrew is doing at an internet café, doesn’t know whether to be impressed at the friend who usually plays second fiddle or annoyed that he had been so secretive. (Fats hates Simon, whose threatening reaction to some accidental damage when the boys were six made him wet himself.)

There is a tiny hint that this first independent act might be the start of a new direction for Andrew. He’s already got himself a weekend job at Howard’s new café, soon to be opened next to the shop. He got it by accident when he followed Gaia into the shop when she was applying for a waitressing job. Howard can’t wait to see her in the tight skirt she’ll have to wear… but he offers her friend a job too because he’ll be able to score some political points: the friend is Sukhvinder. (Plausibility rating for the little scene in which all three get jobs: in the minus figures.)

Who else? Do we care? The Gavin and Kay thread lurches along, with little going for it. Gavin is a commitment-free git, and when Sam Mollison invites them to dinner for no other reason than to be bitchy to Gavin, he spends the evening speaking to Mary Fairbrother, the grieving widow. Sam had accidentally invited her by way of a frankly unbelievable misunderstanding, and gets more and more drunk as the evening goes on. Kay argues with Miles, unable to believe his Little England mind-set. (She obviously doesn’t know she’s in a J K Rowling novel.) The dinner turns into a version of Abigail’s Party without the wit. I didn’t think Abigail’s Party was very witty in the first place, but it’s a lot better than Rowling’s lame attempt to skewer the English lower middle classes at play.

After the scene at the internet café near the end of this section, Fats meets Krystal with her friends from the estate. He is as horrible as Simon, but in a slightly different, more calculating way. Rowling is clearly grooming Krystal for rough diamond status, and she has her telling Fats of her visits to Nana Cath in the hospital. (Did I mention that she collapsed with a stroke? And that the family are suggesting that Parminder, her doctor, refused the right treatment? Do we care?) She goes on to give him some of her back-story – her mother’s previous partner is a convicted murderer, which is why her half-sister and brother were taken into care before Krystal was born – and Fats is as bored as I was unconvinced. I’m beginning to wonder if Rowling does all her research into the underclass by watching Channel 4 documentaries and tv dramas by Jimmy McGovern. And I find it frankly shocking that a writer who wants to be taken seriously in the 21st Century considers it necessary to use spellings like ‘wuz’ for ‘was’ and ‘sez’ for ‘says’ whenever people of this class speak.

One last thing: just before having dope-deadened sex with Krystal, by chance just behind where Barry Fairbrother’s body now lies, Fats tells her that he was adopted. I’m not sure what Rowling is going to do with that little snippet, but I’m not on tenterhooks waiting to find out who the father is. Fats, in his preposterous adolescent way, has decided that his parents must have been from the Fields estate, a place he likes to think of as his spiritual home. But he’s just an idiot.

13 November
Part 3
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realise what Rowling has been doing all this time. She’s written a sensation novel. This was the genre made popular in the 1860s through the judicious use of sensational situations, frequent plot twists and characters behaving very badly indeed. Betrayal, adultery, secret crimes…. They had it all, and so does Rowling’s novel. In Part 3 alone we’ve had memories of a father who threw hot chip-fat at his eleven-year-old daughter and, once she had begun to recover, continued with his habit of forcing her to have sex with him. We’ve had a different father beating not only his wife but also his two sons and, to go with the anonymous website posting about the same father, there’s about to be another one about a mother, posted by a different character. There are at least three children who don’t know their fathers. There have been accusations of medical malpractice leading to a death and threats of beatings shrieked in the street…. And there’s been a rape. And the decision by the victim, if she finds herself to be pregnant, to accuse a faithless boyfriend of being the father.

Obviously, the sex and violence in this novel is far more explicit than anything to be found in the 19th Century. But, just like the first writers of sensation novels, Rowling has looked at what is deemed acceptable in the writings of serious novelists and turns the volume up. And up, and up. This is what happened in the 1860s, when the models were the likes of Dickens and the Brontes, whereas for Rowling, you just need to look at recent Booker shortlists. Rape, or allegations of it? Check. Sex with other people’s spouses, or minors? Check. Graphic violence? Definitely. And, just like the first sensation novelists, Rowling likes to deal with issues of current concern… but you know what I think about the cynical way that Rowling hijacks what people talk about at the sort of dinner party she loves to pastiche.

And like the writers of a century and a half ago, Rowling doesn’t seem to feel it necessary for her set-piece scenes to grow naturally from the workings of plausible relationships or the development of character. If necessary, she will throw character to the winds in order to bring about the next set-piece scene. So Sukhvinder suddenly develops a vindictive urge to seek revenge on her unsupportive mother, and the computing skill to hack into a website. And Krystal, who had always liked Sukhviner, suddenly hates her as a member – I’m quoting – of the same enemy ‘tribe’ as the woman who killed her Nana. Give me strength.

Rowling is a writer who can sometimes get right under the reader’s skin. She is able to take us right inside the Price family’s terror as Simon takes out his anger on them after he finds out about the allegations on the website. Sukhvinder’s unhappiness is crushing as she realises she will never have the support of her mother as things get worse and worse. And it’s hard not to feel some real sympathy for Krystal’s mother Terri, especially when Rowling describes (in the most sensational terms, naturally) the horrors of her background. I guess it’s these moments that have made readers rate the novel so highly, ‘voted best novel of the year by users of Goodreads’. It’s the routes that Rowling takes to reach these gut-wrenching passages that I have trouble with. If it’s easiest for her to set up a scene by way of some fairly extreme behaviour, that seems to be the method she’ll go for.

I mentioned a rape. It’s of Krystal, by Obbo, her mother’s dealer. He’s a character with no recognisably human qualities, one of Rowling’s monsters. Like Simon, in other words, only worse. Rowling doesn’t go for roundness of character, but stereotypes: how could a heroin dealer be anything different in her tabloid newspaper universe? And what else would Krystal think of but to have the child, if there is one, and live off benefits and other people? As everybody knows, that’s what they all do.

19 November
Parts 4 and 5…
…which take us to within a few chapters of the end. What was I saying about sensational plotting? Rowling engineers it, whodunit-style, so that several of her characters are walking about near the river, mainly in order to avoid people they don’t want to meet, while Krystal’s little brother is also there, lost. Krystal had snatched him from home because – because Rowling needed him to be with her. Which is awkward when all Krystal is interested in is meeting Fats in order, as Rowling puts it, to make babies. (Krystal is pretending to be on the pill so Fats isn’t using a condom any more.) First one character sees the lost little lad, then another, but so much has happened during the past 24 hours – it’s that sort of book – that they’re all too deep in their own thoughts to think about him. It’s Sukhvinder, also lost in her own thoughts as she seeks some private place to ‘ply her razorblade’, who spots the little figure in the water and jumps in. But she’s hampered when her leg is sliced into by a submerged computer monitor. How we laughed.

We’re not supposed to laugh, but Rowling has climbed on to such a moral high horse I couldn’t help it. The computer monitor is the dodgy one that Simon had bought from Obbo and discarded following the allegations on the website and, along with all the characters – Gavin, Shirley, Samantha, Fats – who have ignored the boy, it has contributed to his death. Howard Mollison – boo, hiss – has recently succeeded in ridding the parish council of any connection with the Fields estate, and the hand of divine retribution has fallen. It’s fallen on the little boy in order to pronounce, in the clearest terms, that We Are All To Blame for ignoring the plight of the poor. (Sob.) And it’s fallen on Howard Mollison, purple-faced on the floor having indulged himself too liberally at his own birthday party. We should have seen it coming, because this is what happens in Victorian novels. Following this double whammy, I’m assuming that the remaining 30-odd pages are there for Rowling to make everybody squirm.

What have we had in these sections? For one thing, we’ve had confirmation that Rowling makes a far more convincing job of presenting her adolescent characters than her adult ones. It’s a pity that for the first half of the novel the threads that concern Krystal, Andrew, Fats and Sukhvinder are subordinate to those concerning the adults. The yawn-inducing storyline of the ‘casual vacancy’ and the motivations of the different candidates is bad enough, dragging on until something like three quarters of the way through. And we have the continuation of all the other boring little adult threads. There’s Shirley’s bitchiness towards Samantha and Maureen, her husband’s mutton-dressed-as-lamb business partner; we have Samantha’s inability to come to terms with the ageing process and her doomed project to recapture her youth by way of a crush on a member of a boy band; we have Gavin, ditching Kay and making an embarrassing play for Barry’s widow; we have Simon, scurrying about to try and retrieve the situation but finding himself sacked anyway…. And so on, and on, and on.

Rowling must eventually have realised that she has more to offer her readers in the company of the deeply unhappy Sukhvinder, the self-assured but vulnerable Gaia, the endlessly self-conscious – but increasingly independent-minded – Andrew, the ultimately self-destructive Fats… and, despite my misgivings of Rowling’s presentation of her, the one who has no control over her own life, Krystal. If I look back to these threads in the first 200 or more pages they seem lost in the noise of the unattractive adults’ storylines. A good editor – and I’m sure nobody felt they could possibly put themselves forward for such a role with this author – would have advised Rowling to trim down the adults’ stories, almost to nothing. This novel is clearly about how parents screw up the lives of their children – the tragic denouement underlines this – and could stand alone with only passing references to the small-minded, mean-spirited internecine strife of the adult world.

Some other things. Terri, Krystal’s mother, is in rehab for most of the second half of the novel. Running alongside the Mollisons’ project to get rid of any responsibility for the Fields is another, to terminate the rental agreement with the rehab clinic. Terri has no other part to play than as victim, and premature news of the clinic’s supposedly imminent closure is what sends her back to her heroin habit for the third time. It’s what makes Krystal take her brother away – she finds him in the same bedroom as the repugnant Obbo – which leads, ultimately, to the drowning. As I’ve suggested from the start, Rowling’s presentation of the underclass is one-dimensional, which is why I don’t find her moral crusade either convincing or brave. The Fields are a convenient, implausible millstone she’s invented to wrap around the necks of the likes of the Mollisons.

There are other adult threads, to do with postings by the ‘Ghost’ – that is, by the sons and daughters of the victims. Cubby Wall is off sick, because there’s been a posting, put there by Fats. It reveals Cubby’s delusional fear that he is a child-molester and, inevitably, he loses the election to Miles Mollison. Meanwhile the posting about Parminder – her daughter had posted that she was in love with Barry – leads her into a (rather well described) mental turmoil that gets in the way of everything else. She can’t have a meeting, or drive her car, or have a normal conversation without her thoughts constantly interrupting her… and this culminates in her screaming, at the crucial council meeting, details of how much Howard Mollison’s self-induced ill-health has cost the taxpayer. Now she’s been suspended both from the council and from the medical practice over her unprofessional behaviour – so she feels she mustn’t help Howard when Miles asks her to. And Simon is talking about moving the family to Reading, where a contact has offered him a job.

Meanwhile… Andrew, Gaia and Sukhvinder have become a loose band of three at the café. Slowly, Andrew is able to be more natural with Gaia, and they both treat Sukhvinder as a human being. Gaia even knows about Sukhvinder’s self-harming. But (sigh) this is a J K Rowling novel, and things have to be shaken up. At Howard Mollison’s party, at which they are acting as waiters, Gaia gets drunk and Fats arrives unannounced. Both Andrew and Sukhvinder see him forcing a kiss on the almost unconscious Gaia but take it to be something else. (This in spite of Gaia’s drunken questions to Fats earlier about why he is so nasty to her friend.) This is why Sukhvinder is looking for a place to cut herself next day, and how she comes to see the drowning boy when she should be at the café.

I wonder what Victorian-style rewards Rowling will have in store for her. And what other resolutions there will be.

20 November
Parts 6 and 7 – to the end
Part 6: the rest of the day of the drowning, culminating in the suicide, by way of a heroin overdose, of – wait for it – Krystal Weedon. Part 7: the aftermath, culminating in the apotheosis, by way of a flashback to her most glorious triumph, of the girl that Sukhvinder now remembers only for being brave and funny. You can’t crush a rough diamond just because she’s dead… but perhaps you can pass me the sick-bucket.

Sukhvinder does get her rewards, plural, in the shape of respect from the whole community, an end to the name-calling by the school low-lifes, and love from her mother. Don’t take the sick-bucket away just yet, will you? As for everybody else, they get what they deserve. Andrew gets a promise from Gaia that they will meet up in Reading whenever she visits her father, who lives there. Gaia gets to move back to London, provided the inquiry into the care of the Weedon family doesn’t leave her mother unemployable. (How the multimillionaire J K Rowling thinks all these moves can be paid for is anybody’s guess. Perhaps she’ll lend them some money, or arrange a magical windfall. It wouldn’t be the least plausible thing in the novel.) Even over-tanned Samantha in her too small boy-band t-shirt has been on the wagon since her embarrassing attempt to kiss Andrew – I forgot to mention that – at Mollison’s party. She is learning how to live with herself, and with her dick of a husband… and she even has a cunning plan. Now she’s on better terms with Miles – she had earlier told him she didn’t love him any more – she’s got him to agree to nominate her and Cubby for the vacant seats on the council. In her newly cleaned-up persona she’s going to block the closure of the rehab clinic. Yay.

Which leaves the rest. The Walls: surviving, with a newly contrite and disabused Fats having falsely confessed to writing all the posts to the website and, like a character at the end of a Thomas the Tank Engine story, definitely a sadder and wiser engine. And his adoptive parents have assured him that he isn’t the son of someone from the Fields, but of ‘a fourteen-year-old middle-class girl’ – and that he might well be the product of incest. (Is this a clue? The only one who fits the bill is the Mollisons’ lesbian daughter. Who knows?) The Mollisons: stuck in a worse rut than ever. Not only is Howard permanently incapacitated following that second heart attack; Shirley has to live with the knowledge that he has been having an affair with Maureen for years. (Pat, their daughter, reveals this to Andrew and the others in a fit of pique; Andrew shows his father how to post the information on to the council website.) Simon and Ruth: the same as before, with Andrew still able to see through his mother’s self-deception as she hopes that in the move to Reading Simon’s nastiness will be left behind like forgotten removal boxes. Terri Weedon: being half-carried from the funeral as the rest of the congregation averts its eyes – which is how Rowling, the wannabe Victorian, chooses to end it.

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