Petty politics, drug abuse, domestic violence, wrist slashing — JK Rowling dives headfirst into the world of ‘adult’ issues in her latest, The Casual Vacancy. The book takes off from the death of Pagford’s local councillor Barry Fairbrother and the reader is soon entrenched in small town politics as the tussle to fill in the ‘casual vacancy’ begins. Barry, as the councillor at Pagford’s Parish Council, had been struggling to keep the Fields within Pagford’s jurisdiction, something that a majority of the town was opposed to. To the Mollisons, his death seems like the perfect opportunity to rid the town of the burden of the Fields. Colin Walls, Fairbrother’s best friend, feels that the only way to continue Barry’s fight was to stand for election against Miles.
Rowling follows the classic good vs bad format in her adult rendition too. As always, she has been Dickensian in choosing names for some of her characters. For instance, Barry Fairbrother is the epitome of fairness and justice. Terri, the drug addict, has the last name Weedon. Her characters cannot be accused of being one-dimensional. However, portraying the real world does little justice to Rowling’s storytelling abilities. No matter how complex her characters, the book doesn’t manage to sustain the reader’s interest. Perhaps the problem is the attention she gives to character-building, allowing her plot to slacken and stretch. The first few chapters deal only with how each family in Pagford hears about the death, unravelling each character to the reader, giving a sneak peek into the lives of each of the families in the town — including the narrow-minded, self-centred Mollisons and the Jawandas, Punjabis who’d had an arranged marriage and have a depressed, wrist-cutting daughter.
Rowling’s insight into human behaviour is the book’s only strong point. Interestingly, her most thought-provoking characters are the adolescents in the story. About teenager Stuart Walls (nicknamed Fats in school) she writes: “Fats was convinced that he knew himself particularly well; he explored the nooks and crevices of his own psyche with an attention he had recently ceased to give to anything else. He spent hours interrogating himself about his own impulses, desires and fears, attempting to discriminate between those that were truly his and those that he had been taught to feel.”
The description instils curiosity about this unusual teenage boy. Similarly, Sukhvinder Jawanda who is afraid to tell her parents that she is bullied at school and Andrew Price who has a strong hatred towards his violent father, make for fascinating characters. The Potter series may not have been the most lyrical piece of literature, but was certainly a witty, comic read. This book not only lacks the humour but is also rank with graphic descriptions such as “like a goat through the body of a boa constrictor” (to describe socially rejected Krystal Weedon’s passage through school).
Comparisons aside, one wonders how many readers will manage to complete this easily putdownable 500-page novel. Personally, it took a strong sense of conviction and commitment to writing a fair review that stopped me from giving up on it.