At first, it takes the first 5 pages to shake off the feeling that you are not, after all, reading a Harry Potter this time. The tone of the first few pages is much like Rowling’s picturization of Little Hangton where Frank Bryce, the war veteran gardener had hobbled around, shooing away little boys from the Riddle’s long abandoned premises. The pace and tone of the narrator’s voice have a familiar quality, akin to the sound of your mother’s twin sister’s.
Rowling’s new book is a break away from the Potter series, and there are times, especially in the first 50 pages of the novel, when you find her emphasis on making that distinction too forced. Gradually, Rowling peels away layers from new characters whom she nurtures through the 500 pages, her voice harsh and unabashedly critical, and alternatively sympathetic. She is more the Rowling of the latter half of the Potter books, delving into the natures, characters and motivations of her various fictitious people than the delightful, magical, cheerily sweet story-teller of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
You can’t read The Casual Vacancy in one sitting. I, at least, couldn’t. This is not at all because I was hampered by its length. The length of HP books never deterred the true-addict from losing herself in a different world where she did not have to care or think about the needs and necessities of this one. Addiction, among other things, is part of the reason why you can’t read The Casual Vacancy in one go. Drug-dependency, broken homes, teenage sex, mental illnesses, poverty, petty politics, and the way that political ideology and leanings have an impact on private lives, and vice versa, all of this makes reading The Casual Vacancy a seven-course meal, necessarily separated by intermezzos, to better appreciate the distinctive flavours in each successive course.
The Casual Vacancy is the kind of book that you probably wouldn’t have read had it not been by JKR. That is not to discredit the book in any way. It would surely be nominated for the Man Booker, and you’d avoid reading it because you’d bet it was just as tedious a read as Life of Pi or Vernon God Little. Rowling’s writing style though, is as unaffected and charming as ever. It takes you very deftly through the lives of the inhabitants of Pagford Parish. Prim, proper and impeccable Pagford. The kind of place that, save for being home only to muggles, pompous Percy Weasley would have perfectly fit into.
There really isn’t anyone you’re rooting for. People, as JKR expertly describes, are not merely what you see. And yet people are hampered by their limited imaginations from empathizing with the others, of whom they care to only see the facades. There are no heroes in Pagford Parish, much like you’d be hard-pressed to find real heroes in real life. It isn’t a book that uplifts your spirits or motivates you. The one thing that The Casual Vacancy does do, though, is help you empathize. There are times when you want to shake the shoulder of the angsty teenagers, or the mothers who fail their children, and times when you wish to join the wives who want to shake their self-involved husbands. Yes, the book is political. Yes, midway through it (one of the benefits the intermezzos forced on me was that I had found myself describing my thoughts about the book at different points to different people: Potter lovers trying to sate their curiosities and abate their fears) you knew the book was about a tussle between the Conservatives and the Liberals. In fact, mid-way, you even knew that Rowling votes Democrat. You knew because you knew whom she was rooting for: the drug-rehab clinic, the non-abandoment of The Fields. You knew because you liked dead Barry Fairweather. You knew because Howard Mollison, Barry’s political arch-enemy, was loud, bawdry, leery, pompous and pretentious. Because the world seemed neatly divided into people you like with good, social, public-welfare intents and people you didn’t, on the “opposite camp”, with shallow lives and malicious hearts.
Just as deftly as she created it, Rowling shatters your neat world-view; making you polish the panes and peer a little closer, look past the filthy blinds or into the cluttered drawers filled with years of rubbish suppressed in memory.
Slowly and surely the Fields and the politics surrounding them is lost amidst the very present problems in the personal lives of the people of Pagford, especially the lives of the kids. Rowling’s understanding of teen angst was apparent in the Order of the Phoenix itself, as Harry blundered through the book, with badly disguised and barely suppressed rage born out of neglect and misunderstanding. Her teenagers in The Casual Vacancy have as much imagined as real problems and she treats them the same as she treated Harry while dealing with them. Yet it is almost reassuring to me when i read that the women in this book do indeed have their period and that little boys wet their pants and babies poop. I had often worried about Hermione’s period during all the running around and saving Harry from Voldemort that she had to do. The lives of the people of Pagford are very “authentic”.
It is very difficult to distil the stories of people in The Casual Vacancy due to their sheer diversity.
I am irresistibly reminded of something Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple used to say, something about human nature being the same everywhere. Each individual is ubiquitous in his/her uniqueness. Yet, as a whole, as a community, they cannot be transplanted to any other place. The people of Pagford are unique in that because of how their interpersonal relationships, histories, loves and the deaths they mourn collectively makes an impression on the people that they are.
Once again we meet dutiful wives, like Petunia Dursley, keen on keeping their own businesses quiet, and hysterical husbands’ fear of revelation of those well-kept secrets, matching Uncle Vernon’s paranoia that landed Petunia, Harry and Dudley in that Hut on the Rock. Rowling is unflinching in her descriptions of the squalid interiors of the lives in Pagford, the banality of their existence, the frustrations of the young, the old and the middle-aged, the monsters that slept on their beds, and hid inside hashish boxes, the painful interconnectedness of the joys and sorrows, of the causes of death and rebirth, of the cruelties of Fate: those invisible gossamer threads that web us together and make us trip, and we end up suddenly dead or worse, Those that we call accidents because we cannot comprehend this interconnectedness with our limited imaginations.
I am certain that i won’t be forgetting any time soon these characters JKR recently acquainted me with, but one thing i desperately want out of my head instantly is the repeated refrain of “ella -ella -ella eh eh eh under my um-ber-ella ella ella eh eh eh …”
The Casual Vacancy allows me to leave untrammeled and untouched my love for the writer of the Harry Potter books. I’ve grown up, and she’s let me.