“It was so good to be held. If only their relationship could be distilled into simple, wordless gestures of comfort. Why had humans ever learned to talk?”
J K Rowling
How we met: Duh, I had been waiting for it since this post
Six Word Summary: The most refined townships have underbellies
I rate it: B-
The short of it: Digging under the manicured fingernails of a small, peaceful British town, Rowling uncovers filthy layers of drug abuse, child neglect, domestic abuse, rape, xenophobia, and other festering secrets.
I think it was Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple who, when faced with the comparison between a tiny, restful British village like St. Mary’s Mead and a stagnant pond where nothing ever happens, commented that looking at a drop of pond water through a powerful microscope reveals that it is slithering with life forms that are invisible to the naked eye. Rowling, in The Casual Vacancy, takes a cross-section of Pagford, an imaginary but very realistic village in West Country England, under the microscope for our enjoyment.
When Barry Fairbrother, Pagford parish councillor, drops dead in the middle of his anniversary dinner, a furtive scramble begins almost immediately to take over the casual vacancy created by the death in the council. Under the veneer of polite smiles, teeth and claws come out, and old enmities are resharpened. However, the tentative candidates don’t know how to handle the turn of events when a poison pen starts revealing their most shocking and best kept secrets online on the council forum.
This is the world of the adults of Pagford. The children, on the other hand, have their own share of darkness, most of them being victims of neglect or abuse in some form or the other. Of them, the story of Krystal Wheedon, disreputable school slut and the daughter of a meth abusing mother, stands out like a rotting, decayed thumb.
The one problem I had with The Casual Vacancy is that it is too petty. All said and done, Pagford is a small town, and its struggles are small struggles. They could seem momentous to the person living within them, but to an outsider, they could seem like a bit of nasty gossip. Deadly secrets are foreshadowed throughout the book, but when they come to light, they are mundane and uninteresting. I like a bit of malevolent gossip, and so do many other people I know, but to go one about them for a whole book seems a bit futile. Another reason why The Casual Vacancy got a bit exhausting is that, apart from the late lamented Barry, there are no positive characters. There are people who are just so bad they are reminiscent of Petunia Dursley, people who seem nice and principled at first glance, but are later revealed to be irresponsible and wanton, and people who are otherwise okay, but are so clingy and whiny in their personal lives it is difficult to tolerate them.
Despite shortcomings, The Casual Vacancy is a fantastically told story, and it manages to hold your interest throughout. It has Rowling’s brand of humor, her refined sense of the absurd, and her power to find a yarn in most anything. Also, The Casual vacancy reflects beautifully Rowling’s power to write about teenaged children; their angst, their confusion, and their naivety.
All in all, a good book, an interesting book, but not even almost a great book. J K Rowling’s foray into the world of grown up literature shows great promise, but it wont be until her next book that we can be sure if she has it in her to deliver.
Read it if:
- You like gossipy stories about small town intrigue
- You like grim, dark novels with a lining of black humor
-Amritorupa “Where has all the magic gone” Kanjilal
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