If anyone had any doubt, what kind of a personality J K Rowling is, even after killing off Dumbledore and Snape; who, incidentally, needn’t have attained the current adoration had he not died, then their questions are laid to rest with this book – she is incomparably dark and gloomy for a person who is richer than the godforsaken Queen herself. I had pre-ordered the book in Flipkart, who were kind enough to avail me no benefits of having done so, by delivering the book almost a week late and charging, more than what the other websites usually do. Casual Vacancy was thicker and larger than any book I had read, that I felt initially a rush of happiness for having bought it. My thought was something like this – “So what if I may not like the book, at least people will be impressed that I read something twice as big as a brick”.
Coming back to some real pointers on the book, one word would suffice – A Dementor’s Paradise. Readers of Harry Potter would know that Dementors are those vile beings who suck out the happiness from our life and sometimes our soul too as has been partially demonstrated towards the end of The Prisoner of Azkaban and the beginning of The Order of The Phoenix. The small town Pagford has just lost its Parish Councillor, Barry Fairbrother, and Pagfordians, both who are on his side and on the opposite, react in different ways to the vacancy incumbent upon them. Through these varying reactions, Rowling tries to bring out the grey shades in seemingly good people and the insecurity suffered by seemingly negative women and men we see in our lives and gives them a touch of authenticity that ends up being brutally painful sometimes.
· Storyline and Themes
The story is political on surface level. An ideological fight between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, between conservatives and liberals, between right and left; and the author doesn’t make any effort to hide whom she supports, though to her credit, she has been consistent in that, she has always espoused liberal ideologies, even in her popular Harry Potter series, which also, in certain angles, is a fight between conservatives and liberals, rather than just about an orphaned boy. But there is the undercurrent that those who are on the left side of the political spectrum can be unreasonable, although, in the end, they are well-intentioned, while on the other hand, the traditionalists are silly and bullies, who eventually try to win by hook or crook.
J K Rowling had once told in an interview that ever since she had received the news of her mother’s demise, she had always made it a point to make death a larger than life, inevitable villain in all her books. She continues to do so in the book, giving Death, a life for itself, constantly reminding others how fickle life is. The novel takes occasional breaks from the all encompassing gloominess in the form of dark humour, drawing generous contributions from the Howard-Shirley-Maureen-Samantha Mollissons.
A lot of contemporary themes have been sown in craftily by Rowling, including the abuse of technology – online bullying and hacking for instance; friendship, loyalty and the subsequent moral turmoil we inflict upon ourselves; infidelity in marriage and so on. But most striking is the parts which showcase the friendships, especially about the private friendships we have within our minds with someone else, though not in real life. Thus we have Sukhwinder always remembering Krystal with gratitude in her mind, Gavin’s sudden realisation of his friendship with Barry Fairbrother, Stuart admitting his emotional dependence on Andrew inside his mind, all of which are inside ones head, not openly displayed much to everybody’s discomfiture like the one between Barry and Colin Wall.
Barry Fairbrother is no doubt the non-existing hero of the story. He is the aspirational person who makes everyone’s life better with his easy manners and kind nature. Perhaps with his death Rowling is trying to emphasise that true goodness is dead in the society and that we are all only trying unsuccessfully to be good, with her repeated reference to the happier times when Barry was around – be it during a dinner or during the parish council meetings.
Krystal Weedon, who shows what courage is, comes across as the most striking living character in the story. She is desperate, pathetic, poor yet brave. Her goodness being overshadowed by her apparent negativity is an all too frequent idea employed by the author. The theme is repeated through her mother and brother also. (Remember the sequence where Samantha regrets that had Robbie been neat she might have picked him up). As an antithesis, Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall is portrayed as someone who, though puts up a facade of being different, and dark and twisted, is at the end, a real coward who cannot face the harsh truths of life.
Sukhwinder deserves a special mention for her characterisation. She is the ugly child in the class whom no one cares about. And no one knows about such people. Sukhwinder reminded about all those about whom we don’t care to ask for, who is not missed by his/her presence, who doesn’t make any, perceptible difference in anyone’s life. Yet their life has meaning, yet they do have feelings for themselves and for others. She is that nameless faceless person who exists only in our age old class photos, whose name we don’t even bother to know about.
Then there are the Slytherins. The Mollissons. Howard is that fat ugly guy whom we have to hate and is given importance only due to fear and not out of respect. My views echo another review, “JKR, why do you hate fat people?” Patricia makes an elegant cameo as the estranged daughter of the Mollissons. If there was ever an Emmy for guest appearance in novels, she would get it.
JK Rowling tries to paint the life in Britain in a darker shade of grey and she achieves it. As someone, who does not like being made to feel guilty for something over which I have no personal control, I feel that she could have toned down on the poverty porn. But since, I was not reading something about the poor brown people, and instead about the poor white people, whom we Indians always imagine to be rich and well off, just because they are fairer, it is bound to be genuinely insightful for a few.
There is this sequence where in Parminder Jawanda blurts out the medical secret of one of her patient’s. It not only gives the readers a strange sense of sweet revenge, however wrong her actions might be, but also make us want to give Parminder a hug and a standing ovation.