The Casual Vacancy: A Boatload of Miseries

October 2, 2012

Book Reviews

Far, far away from the enchanted lands of Hogwarts and the sweep of magic wands, the author of Harry Potter tales has summoned a sordid world into existence on the terra firma of lowlife in The Casual Vacancy. So fiercely has she broken away from the inherent charm and promise of her earlier fables that it is difficult to spot spores of happiness and hope in her saga set in present day England. It is a book bristling with dark, devious characters and a seemingly bright soul who drops dead the moment the book begins anyway.

 Pagford is a small scenic town with cobbled roads, hedged rows, memorials and Victorian structures ‘cupped in a hollow between three hills’ and a river snaking through it. However, its peripheries also include the squalid settlement of Fields, infested with drug-peddlers, felons and addicts and, as if it were, excrements of humanity. The Pagford Parish Council is largely represented by the middle and elite class to whom Fields is an eyesore, a source of pollution and corruption and a strain on the parish budget. Townsfolk have been pressing hard for a fresh demarcation of boundaries of the town and severing of Fields to the city of Yarvil. Barry Fairbrother, the only councillor to have risen from Fields, has been able to foil the efforts of the rest of the council with the help of Dr Parminder Jawanda, another councillor and a Sikh woman.

Barry Fairweather’s death creates a ‘casual vacancy’ in the Pagford Parish Council and many start salivating at the prospect of slipping into it. Miles Mollison is being backed by his influential parents Howard and Shirely Mollison who are already part of the big league. Colin Walls, the deputy headmaster of ‘Winterdown’, feels duty bound to carry on the unfinished agenda of his departed friend. Simon, a printer and a brutally abusive man jumps into the fray with an eye on kickbacks. Commotions ensue when the website of the council is serially hacked and defamatory messages appear causing cataclysms in the lives of the victims. Insidious plotting, brutal violence, rampant drug abuse and noxious sex further charge and precipitate the manifold tragedy.

The pages of The Casual Vacancy churn out a fertile crop of characters singularly dark in constitution. Rowling presents an appalling parade of maliciously crafty, barbarously violent, hideously prurient and pathologically depressed humans. From the abject lowlife of Terri and Obbo to the highbrow, Machiavellian world of Howrad and Shirley, the reader is parched for a drop of hope in the murky stream. Evidently, the ‘casual vacancy’ leading to an election is not the central theme of the book. It is more the unfurling of the dark fabric of human depravities, hued in hypocrisy, hatred, selfishness, squalor, defiance and despair.

 The characters of the Casual Vacancy can be loosely classified into sets of ‘haves and have-nots’ and grown-ups and adolescents. Rowling has bestowed her felicity for adolescent psychology upon the characters of Fats, Andrew, Krystal, Gaia and Sukhvinder. The skillfully detailed irreverence and angst of these characters amuse and frustrate the reader at the same time. Emotional tracts of many grown-ups are well explored and in many cases we sympathise with their personal black holes. But some of them remain shallow and dull, lacking both dimension and depth. It is hard to zero in on a central character, harder still to find a favourite among them. Krystal Weedon may linger longer in memory for her grit and fortitude and also as a reminder of the human promise recoverable from festering slums.

Rowling uses a sparse, contemporary language, richly interspersed with slangs, which perfectly suits her sociological fantasy. Unforgiving volleys of foul words are just around the corner, her tool of choice for driving home the angst. She employs hackneyed English for the dialogues of the characters of the less-privileged strata, a la Charles Dickens. Her style is uncomplicated and relaxed. We learn that “There were no books, no pictures, no photographs, no television; nothing except a pair of filthy armchairs and a broken set of shelves” in Terri’s house. Yet, her metaphors and symbols will hit with a force: “The news of Barry Fairweather’s sudden demise lay in her lap like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances.”  And standing outside Terri’s house, “Kay noticed a used condom glistening in grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.” Her satire can be unforgiving as her description of Howard, “A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.”She may package the darkest of thoughts in subtle humour: “Andrew indulged in a little fantasy in which his father dropped dead, gunned down by an invisible sniper. Andrew visualized himself patting his sobbing mother on the back while he telephoned the undertaker. He had a cigarette in his mouth as he ordered the cheapest coffin.”

 ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is a story with grim sociopolitical messages on complex issues like poverty, parochialism, racism, drug-abuse and the crumbling structure of family. However, that doesn’t hinder the master storyteller from spinning fetching lengths of human drama. The interplay of adolescents enlivens the broth lending it suspense and anticipation. And the small town of Pagford provides a perfect backdrop against which the darker streaks of human souls are laid bare. However, there is a miasma of hopelessness in ‘The Casual Vacancy’ that refuses to dissipate from the opening to the end. It is an Odyssey of miseries swirling with oppressed souls without a promise of redemption.

The Casual Vacancy

Author: J. K. Rowling

Publishers: Little, Brown

Pages: 503

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About umashankar

I am just a watcher then. Sometimes I watch life. Sometimes I watch death. Many times I watch in between...

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58 Comments on “The Casual Vacancy: A Boatload of Miseries”

  1. The Fool Says:

    Beautiful review. You do such a great job of review they seem worth reading for their own sake. I was slowly losing interest in writing reviews. Seeing your reviews inspires me to start writing reviews again. Coming to the book. seems like she had done a decent job but its not the kind of book I want to read. I prefer escapist fiction or something high on interesting concepts. Not into social gloom and doom. So long and thank you for Harry Potter, Ms Rowling. I got to move on.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      Am I glad my reviews kindle a fire in you! Many thanks to you TF. It is the assurance that I receive from connoisseurs like you that keeps the little flame in me going.

      Rowling may return to Hogwarts yet again!

      Reply

  2. Modern Gypsy Says:

    That’s an excellent review. Sounds interesting, & as expected, a far remove from the Harry Potter series. I wasn’t timp convinced about the book after reading some of the other reviews by “professional critics” online, but after reading this, I think I’m going to add it to my list of books to read.

    Reply

  3. ilakshee Says:

    Your review in itself is a work of art. Now I am tempted to read this’other’ book by Rowling.

    Reply

  4. Personal Concerns Says:

    very nice review Uma. Have not read the Potter series. this one could be a start to my Rowling!

    Reply

  5. Jyothi Says:

    Currently reading this book. Barely on page 30… and I can already sense most of what you have written. Will come back to read it again after I finish the book. 🙂

    Reply

  6. C. Suresh Says:

    Mmm! Like TF, I do not prefer books that offer no possibility of redemption. Your review, however, is eminently readable as ever!

    Reply

  7. Rachna Parmar Says:

    Very dark, despairing books sometimes put me off. And, I was so in love with her Harry Potter books that comparisons will be inevitable. I am not certain if I want to pick this one up.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      True. Life has all shades though. Have you read Prem Chand and F N Renu?

      Reply

      • Rachna Parmar Says:

        Life does have all shades but sometimes I feel so depressed that I wonder if it was worth reading a despairing tale. I have read Prem Chand and not Renu. Do you have a list of good Hindi books that you can share with me? I will see if I can get them at my library or let me know how to source them.

        Reply

  8. Jas Says:

    You have already read it? I am in love with Harry potter series but I am really not sure if grim is what I want to paint J K Rowling now. Though I definitely laud the complete turnaround in her style as per your review.

    Reply

  9. Richa Says:

    It sounds very depressing! and very unlike to the HP books I am always raving about. Do you think the hopelessness and darkness in the book was too much? If it was, I would rather skip this one.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      It is a depressing book Richa and I believe I was still upset when I wrote the review. Yet, it would be wrong to say that the book is without any promise. The interplay of humanity is worth the sadness you may have to wade through the book.

      Reply

  10. sharmila Says:

    Grim sociopolitical saga of 500 pages ? I better skip this one .

    Reply

  11. alkagurha Says:

    The review is more interesting than the book, I guess….many others found this new offering by Rowling tiresome.

    Reply

  12. Zephyr Says:

    Coming from Rowling, this book might depress her multitude of fans. I read your reviews more for their own sake than the possibility of picking the book up. If I don’t read this book it won’t be because it is depressing, because I like that genre too!

    Reply

  13. pchandra Says:

    That is a great in depth review! You keep shining Mr Pandey, day after day, post after post. I am counting my luck on a cheaper paperback edition of The Casual Vacancy!

    Reply

  14. medhakapoor Says:

    Halfway through the book, I’m still hoping Dumbledore’ll come barging through with his wand and magical students. Hehe. Rowling has re-defined herself and how. I love how she sketches her little characters by taking us through minion events of their lives.

    Reply

  15. magiceye Says:

    Lovely review. Maybe I will read! Have not read Harry Potter!

    Reply

  16. Shankari Says:

    I can see a change in tone in the reply to comments compared with the review. Are you changing your mind, USP? 😉

    Do you think that because we love the HP series, it will be difficult to view this book independently and objectively? If you had not known the author’s name, would you have felt differently?

    I am not cross examining. Just want know what you think. 🙂

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      It is true I have been reflecting back on the book but my views remain unchanged, even if I felt miffed initially. It is not a weak book at all but I maintain it is a grim story. Again, it is not uncommon to allude to the previous works of the author; sometime there is a familiar theme. This is though a clear departure and that had to be mentioned.

      There was a small mix up when I’d first posted the review. I’d accidentally posted the first draft and shredded the finished version. Hopefully, it is now in the shape I intended it to be.

      Reply

  17. Ghazala Hossain Says:

    Thank you for a peek into this book for I do not know when I would be reading this. Some of the lines you have quoted shocked me but I guess that is good writing. I just hope this book is not very fat 😀

    Reply

  18. sudhagee Says:

    It’s unfair that authors get compared to their earlier works and more so when the two genre’s don’t match. But considering that the author here is JKR, comparisons between HP and this book was inevitable.

    I am an HP fan, and while I love the felicity that JKR has with words and her easy narrative style, I am not sure if I am a J.K. Rowling fan. I get the feeling that I will be able to decide only after reading “The Casual Vacancy”. And yes, I am going to read it. Thanks for your wonderful review.

    Reply

  19. Nona Says:

    Thanks for the review. I might pick this one at a later date. The name of my blog is an inspiration from one of the devices in her earlier series. 🙂

    Reply

  20. Corinne Rodrigues Says:

    I haven’t read a single one of the Harry Potter series to date! But this certainly seems like my kind of book – I like books rich with human drama – which to my mind, at least, is usually dark. I had already decided to get my first taste of Rowling via this book, and your review just sealed that decision. Thank you.

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      Rowling is going to love you, Corinne! I am also in awe of the human drama which is often dark than light. I am glad my review brought you closer to the book.

      Reply

  21. dnambiar11 Says:

    I was not too into the Harry Potter books. I liked watching the movies, tho’
    When I heard Rowling was going to be writing for adults, I thought that was great.
    Now that I’ve been through this review, I’m sure I’ll read it in a few months’ time.

    Reply

  22. Giribala Says:

    Thanks for the review! It took me such a long time to read this that I can’t dare to read the book!

    Reply

  23. Bikramjit Singh Mann Says:

    J K ROwling should be contacting you soon, for the lovely review. I am sure if she read this she wont need her publicity people .. As always a great review sir, you make me wanna buy this book for a read .. although I have not yet read either of the HP books .. I have all of them in my collection ..

    I need to retire to enjoy the luxuries of life I guesss

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      Thank you for humouring me, my friend! And I thought I’d written a stiff one. 🙂

      Reply

      • Bikramjit Singh Mann Says:

        I am not humouring you sir, why would you think that way.. I said what I felt that the review when read seems genuine.. and I am sure thats how it shud be irrespective of you giving it Full marks or a zero

        Reply

        • umashankar Says:

          Yes, of course, Bikram. A review should be objective although that can be a rare commodity. Yet, even a casual reviewer has certain responsibilities to both the reading community and the author. Cheers!

  24. V.K.G.B. Says:

    Insightful and objective review. NYT gave a negative review, while Newsweek has given thumbs up! (Newsweek in lighter vein said that the book should have come with a warning – Keep Out Of The Hands Of Children!! ) – is it that grim and ‘adult-rated’ ?

    Reply

    • umashankar Says:

      I believe Rowling has been faithful to certain impalatable truths. I have not read the Newsweek review but I do subscribe to the view that it be kept away from children. Thanks for your input.

      Reply

  25. panchali Says:

    That’s an interesting review, Umashankar. Fantasy stories enlivened by the supernaturals…should be interesting. I want to read it now. My daughter was talking about this book sometime back. I must get it from her… Thanks for sharing and for the reminder…:)

    Reply

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