I had swithered and dithered over whether to read The Casual Vacancy, J.K.Rowling's first novel for adults. The cover didn't look too inspiring and there had been a massively restrictive embargo which had put paid to any early reviews to give me any clues about the book's qualities (or lack of) so in the end I side-stepped the hype and decided not.
Then I read something about the content being socially gritty... drugs, domestic abuse, children at risk, teenage angst, deprivation and poverty, and the 'haves' living cheek by jowl with the 'have-nots' and thought, well that's a world I know day in day out at work, I'll give it a whirl. At this point I must admit I felt a bit daunted by 500 pages and hoped this would be reading time well-spent as I clicked the button and pre-ordered it for my Kindle to arrive on publication day.
All is not well in the West Country town of Pagford, which thanks to some creative re-drawing of boundaries by the neighbouring town, along with some judicious sales of land by the owners of the Big House, now finds itself the curator of a less than desirable estate of social housing known as The Fields. When much loved town councillor and ardent supporter of The Fields, Barry Fairbrother, dies on page three, thus quickly creating the casual vacancy of the title on the council, it is time for all the factions to make themselves known as the quest for a new candidate begins. There will be the fate of a drug treatment centre to be decided too, and there is nothing like a bit of a sink housing estate for the provision of some meaty characters for a novel (eighty-one to be exact) and without magic and wizards to assist you know this is not going to be pretty, or magically made better... because having knocked on those doors myself for many years this is a world I know only too well.
But then I also thought... if a book is also about an author with worldwide fame giving voice to the silent minorities, and flagging up those hardships to the rest of the world who may pass them by, then what's not to heart.
And that was probably my central and most problematic personal dichotomy with the book.
A bevvy of people that many may call stereo-types, with the full gamut of stereo-typical social ills at their disposal that many might call cliche, but if done well and an accurate representation then I am always prepared to applaud and call it all realist.
The troubled teenager Krystal and her brother, little three year old Robbie in his elephantine-sized sodden nappy careering aimlessly around a toyless, joyless house (barely a home) while their drug addict mum looks on with her pin-point pupils and slurred speech. Terri is on a methadone (heroine replacement) programme which, with the right support, can be very successful. Then there was the newly arrived social worker and her rebellious daughter, Gaia, and the Sikh GP married to the cardiac surgeon with the troubled under-achieving daughter (in their eyes) self-harming her way out of anxiety over bullying at school. The headteacher suffering from obsessive compulsive delusions married to the school counsellor, and their teenage son who rejected everything his parents stood for....the teenagers really are in charge here, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that this may have been the book's strength given JKR's previous success.
Moving swiftly on to the violent Simon with sociopathic tendencies, scarily plausible to friends and colleagues, but a beast behind the closed doors of his home, and his disempowered wife Ruth, a nurse and incapable of protecting herself and her terrified sons from their father's rages. I am sure I have left some out but it was almost as if... dare I say this... as if JKR had a checklist... one week in my office and she would have met the whole lot.
Now when an author ventures onto my turf the first thing I ask is to be in a safe pair of hands.
I know it is fiction, but if it is realist fiction then I want accuracy and as true-a representation as is possible of the bits that I know at least, that way I will feel like a reader not a health professional sitting in judgement. I can feel confident about the rest and sit back and let the author solve the problems whilst feeling that for once it is not my job to do so.
Am I right to expect that accuracy?
I would be interested to know from any writers out there... does accuracy matter??
Is it important to do your research say if you are going to write about a social worker's visit to a child at risk, or what happens at a case review, or do you just make it up and hope for the best??
I am genuinely interested to know whether my expectations were just too high here, and also what do you all expect as readers??
I realise that perhaps naively I place a degree of trust and confidence in the authorial hand hiding behind the omniscient narrator in circumstances such as these, and am usually blissfully unware of their presence as I read, however once that confidence wavered, as it did drastically during the social worker's visit, I started to question. In fact I did more than that... 'that's all wrong' I kept thinking and started to feel very insecure, anxious and fretful about the entire book, suspension of disbelief (because it is made up after all...it isn't real) was replaced by a heavy and lowering cloud of incredulity as plot devices felt increasingly clunky before a rushed descent into melodrama, whilst every conceivable social issue worth a mention flew in like Hogwarts owls from every corner.
The book and I were effectively done for though I soldiered on in the hope that it would all turn around
Either you ground your book in reality or you ground it in a mangrove swamp and those owls fly in with the messages. I know plenty of writers who go to the ends of the earth for veracity and accuracy...the research Amanda Craig did for Hearts and Minds and which I know she is doing for her next novel... or Susan Hill and the professionals she calls on for her Simon Seraillier novels, police, forensic scientists, lawyers... even asking me, and yes quite a few writers do run things by me.
It can be done in a novel and I have an expectation that it will be, and then I presumed that editors picked up on the finer points and corrected them accordingly, and most importantly chopped out the excess (perhaps even reduce a 500 page book to a much tighter 300 page one) but it seemed patently obvious to me that this may not have been the case for some important and crucial aspects of The Casual Vacancy.
If only someone had asked.
Because if a writer is going to tackle the subject of child protection and safeguarding as one of their central themes, then to my mind, and with respect to the professionals involved who are out there slogging at the coal face day in day out, it needs to be right. You need to know the fundamental rules that we all work to nationally, and we do because we have to or we are struck off.
I would just like to reassure you all that if you read The Casual Vacancy this is not how it happens, and the social worker does not, having left a child at risk of significant harm on the promise of improvement from a mother high on drugs, then call a case review a while later that does not include the health visitor.
I was bound to throw a wobbly wasn't I.
It is the health visitor who contributes the information about the health and development of the child, not the GP (can't remember the last time I saw a GP at a meeting though JKR does acknowledge that ) We work tirelessly in the run up to case reviews, writing reports, doing home visits, sitting and watching a child at play, how they interact with the adults who care for them, we do intensive Schedule of Growing Skills assessments, filling in centile charts that will be an accurate record of a child's growth and will contribute to a clear and accurate evidence-based picture of how a child's environment may be impacting on their well-being. No one else does this and so the social workers chase us down for the information before the meeting to include in their reports, our child protection supervisors hold us to account and we present and answer to our own findings at the meeting and then in court if needs be.
We don't rely on a GP saying ' he's eating well and his weight's OK'
No we really, really don't.
Nor do they hold that meeting behind closed doors without inviting the mother. Parents are almost always present at meetings and have a voice there, often with legal representation. It is a two-way process and I would hate people to read this and think this might be what really happens... because let's face it a writer like JKR has that sort of clout.
We all believe that platform really exists at King's Cross after all don't we.
So whilst I may have gone into greater detail and be making a bit of an OTT fuss, and though I would not expect that lot to appear as part of the narrative, I would expect a writer's research to at least contribute to an understanding of the process, and for that knowledge to then be revealed in the accuracy of that narrative.
So, yet again I ask, am I expecting too much??
And is it any wonder my confidence was lost??
It has all made me think about miserable/ challenging subject matter too. A book about the gritty realities of life doesn't actually have to make me feel miserable and wretched if it is well written. I am remembering Even the Dogs by Jon Macgregor from which I emerged feeling uplifted by the experience of what I had just been so privileged to read...
I think I felt that Jon McGregor was trusting me as a reader, which in turn made me trust him as a writer because it was clear that subject matter like this needs a safe pair of hands. Indeed, this might be a world you would prefer to know nothing of, and a sense of place that you'd really rather not experience, because Robert's flat is disgustingly filthy, his life when revealed a mess. His home has been the meeting place for all the local drug addicts, alcoholics and vagrants, all those homeless people governments readily label marginalised and disenfranchised without perhaps really considering the how and why.
So prepare yourself if you plan to read Even the Dogs because Jon McGregor takes the reader deep into the world and the mind of the drug user, the underbelly of society is going to be exposed as the story nips back and forth in time and it's inevitably grim. He has chosen to write about a group from whom society more usually withholds its sympathies...
and this about drug addicts...
They are resourceful though mostly illegally so unless on Methadone replacement and maintenance, surprisingly clear-thinking and organized about supply for all that we label them 'chaotic', and in my experience often very eager to please professionals and therefore very plausible. The danger is omnipresent and I've fallen into the trap many-a time; when your instinct is always to think well of someone you need your wits about you with drug users and much as you want to trust them, sadly you can't trust an addict, you often can't believe what they tell you.
It's a fine and difficult balance because if therapeutic relationships are built on trust where in heaven's name do you start and that innate unreliability was constantly in my mind as I read.
That is basic research that could have shone through in The Casual Vacancy, as a reader I would have spotted it, and this book and I may just have had a happier passage, witness what I saw in Even the Dogs...
The research feels painstakingly accurate but doesn't overburden the whole, it's important to get the right words and he does...script, harm minimisation, risk behaviours, rehab, Methadone, facilitate, assessment they're all there but in just the right context and quantity.
As it was I quite lost my reading mojo for several days realising I couldn't get back that 500 pages of my reading life, and sadly even found myself questioning whether The Casual Vacancy would have made the review pages had it not been written by someone so famous.
When an interviewer from The New Yorker put it to Rowling that there might be strong objections to the idea of young Harry Potter readers being drawn into such material she replied coolly:
"There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher… I’m a writer and I will write what I want to write."
Yes, of course a writer can write what they want, JKR has done so and I am sure plenty of people will be the right reader for this book, it's just that sadly I was not. If you have read The Casual Vacancy I would love to know your thoughts, and if you decide to read it in the future please do come back and let me know what you think.
I suspect the world is very divided on this one.