The world’s favourite storyteller returned late September with a novel for adults. Aparna Sundaresan dissects The Casual Vacancy to find out if J.K. Rowling’s tome is worth the wait and the weight (it is 500 pages hardbound!)
When the Harry Potter series ended, most fans were left with a depressing void in their chests, as though they had just broken up with their long-term partner. When J.K. Rowling announced that she was writing again, there was hope in the fandom, but also doubt. Could The Casual Vacancy fill that void?
The answer is complex. The Casual Vacancy is neither fantasy nor for children. So no, it probably cannot fill the Harry Potter void entirely, but it does take you close to the experience. Rowling’s writing, as ever, is engaging, descriptive and fluid. When you read her, you can instantly picture what her words are telling you. In that respect, Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy are very similar, but when you encounter the first profanity in the book, you know you’re not in Hogwarts.
The Casual Vacancy is about life in Pagford, a small English town, after the death of one of its foremost residents – Barry Fairbrother. Barry was also a member of the town’s parish council (similar to India’s gram panchayat). With his death, there is now a vacancy in the parish council, which brings out the worst in several Pagford residents vying for that post. The rule Rowling seems to have followed is that every character must be dysfunctional and every interaction must have an undercurrent of discomfort and dislike. She presents a quaint, pretty English countryside whose underbelly reeks of underage sex, rape, drug abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, self-harm and suicide.
The adults of Pagford are terrifying. Howard Mollison, leader of the council, is morbidly obese and condescending of anyone who supports the inclusion of “The Fields” – a neighbourhood that houses the poor and the junkies – within the Pagford environs. Samantha Mollison, his daughter-in-law, has an alcohol problem and is sexually attracted to teenagers. Simon Price is an abusive resident who lives off bribes and underhand deals and physically and verbally assaults his children and wife. Terri Weedon, who lives in The Fields, is a prostitute and heroin addict with a three-year-old boy and a teenage daughter. Parminder Jawanda, an Indian-origin Sikh doctor, is married but might have been in love with Barry.
The dramatis personae among the children are Andrew Price, Simon’s teenage son, who harbours feelings for Gaia Bowden, a new student, and smokes and cusses silently at his father as a form of rebellion. Stuart “Fats” Wall, Andrew’s best friend, bullies Sukhvinder, Parminder’s daughter, and has sexual relations with Krystal Weedon, Terri’s daughter. Sukhvinder suffers from severe self-image issues because of her hirsuitism and incessant bullying, and self-mutilates as a result. Krystal is foul-mouthed, is thrust with the responsibility of taking care of her infant brother and seems to enjoy being fondled by the boys in her school.
The Casual Vacancy is ultimately a superb character study of a plethora of people, all given equal place and prominence and allowed to develop well as the book progresses. There is no fixed plot or story as such, so at the end of the book, you will be left only with an intimate knowledge of the town of Pagford through its residents. As there is no overarching story, some readers might find it difficult to get involved with the narrative for a while. Some might even question the point of the book, as all that happens is dysfunctional characters display their weird personalities. Some others might not like the tone of the book – it is quite negative; Rowling makes no pretense of having any affection towards Pagford and its people.
Rowling’s strength lies in creating characters so complete that within a few chapters, you might think you are peeking into the lives of real people. She is particularly remarkable at reaching into the core of adolescent children and understanding what makes them tick. With Harry Potter she demonstrated just that, so if she is looking to stick to a niche, we recommend teenage and young adult fiction.
The Casual Vacancy is recommended for those who do not mind reading a book with no story that journeys its readers only through twisted and troubled minds. Not recommended for those below 18 years of age, not because of the graphic language and themes in the book, but because the structure and writing would not interest younger readers. The bottom line is that The Casual Vacancy is not Harry Potter, so expecting that kind of thrill and engagement would only lead to disappointment.