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.
Author: J. K. Rowling
Publishers: Little, Brown